Cross-cultural advertisement gaffes tend to be caused by basic
translation errors or other misunderstandings and oversights. Similar issues are frequent in other business exchanges. While incorrect
translations often cause confusion, even people who speak the same language may interpret words in different ways.
Avoiding such communication issues altogether is difficult. However,
a number of tactics help in achieving greater clarity:
• Avoid slang, adages, and other culture-specific verbiage, such as sports analogies.
• Consider that a statement’s ‘catchiness’
may matter less in one culture than in another.
• For translations, use only native speakers living in the
• If unsure how well your message works, consult with
several people belonging to the target culture.
If failing to communicate the right message can be embarrassing,
appearing to be culturally insensitive can be outright disastrous.
In the 1990s, apparel maker Benetton ran a campaign that stirred
strong controversy and legal action in many countries. For instance, an ad showing a priest kissing a nun was ruled to be illegal
by Italy’s Supreme Court. The campaign stimulated numerous consumer appeals to boycott the company’s products.
Toyota ads triggered furious responses and criticism from
Chinese watchers, who saw them as deliberate acts by the Japanese car firm to insult the country. One of the ads showed a Toyota
Land Cruiser pulling a broken-down truck, which looked similar to a Chinese military vehicle, implying that Japanese SUVs are
superior to China's military equipment. Considering Japan's military past in the region, this was sure to draw heated remarks in
China. Toyota stopped running the ad and issued an apology.
Showing respect for culture, history, and people is essential when
working across cultures. Doing so requires knowing about, and paying attention to, the other country’s values and practices.
“Know before you go” is good advice, so unless you are well familiar with culture, history, values, and practices, do some
reading, take training, and/or talk to others who are familiar with these aspects before venturing off to do business in any foreign