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Culture is a crucial concept to the understanding of advertising and consumer behavior because it is the lens through which people view advertising messages and products. This research paper reviews and discusses a series of studies on the relations between culture and advertising. The content is organized around different levels of analysis of culture, for example, national level versus individual level. The individualism–collectivism cultural construct and independent–interdependent self-construal construct are given special attention because extensive research has demonstrated the persuasion implications of these variables for advertising content, attitude toward advertisements, and cognitive processing of advertisements.
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- Advertising and Advertising Appeals
- Approaches to Culture in the Context of Advertising and Consumer Behavior
1. Advertising And Advertising Appeals
Advertising has been defined as the nonpersonal communication of information, usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature, about products (goods or services) or ideas by identified sponsors through various media. The central theme or idea behind an advertising message is called the advertising appeal.
2. Approaches To Culture In The Context Of Advertising And Consumer Behavior
Intensified global marketing and advertising activities have given rise in the advertising industry to the advertising standardization versus specification debate. The standardization proponents believe that people around the world have the same needs and desires and that they would react to advertising messages in the same or a similar way. The specification proponents argue that cultural differences among nations make advertising one of the most difficult marketing elements to standardize.
Culture consists of shared elements that provide the standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating, communicating, and acting among those who share a language, a historical period, and a geographical location. As a psychological construct, culture can be studied at multiple levels—across nations, across individuals within nations, and even within individuals through the priming of cultural values. Regardless of how culture is studied, cultural distinctions have been demonstrated to have important implications for advertising content, advertising persuasion, and consumer response.
2.1. Cultural Differences at the National Level
2.1.1. Individualism and Collectivism
Individualism and collectivism comprise the main cultural distinction that has been explored in studying both advertising content and the persuasiveness of ad appeals. Individualism and collectivism have been conceptualized as two powerful cultural models that represent broad differences among nations. As Hofstede, Triandis, and others have proposed, members of collectivistic cultures endorse in-group goals, such as family integrity, harmonious relationships, and the well-being of the in-group, whereas members of individualistic cultures endorse being independent and pursuing individual goals instead of in-group goals. Extensive cross-cultural (cross-national) data have shown that North American and most European countries, such as the United States, Canada, Germany, and Denmark, are individualistic societies and that most East Asian and Latin American countries, such as China, Korea, Japan, and Mexico, are collectivistic societies.
Past research has indicated that more individualistic and less collectivistic advertising appeals are present in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures. For example, Han and Shavitt’s 1994 study found that Korean ads tended to employ appeals emphasizing ingroup benefits, harmony, and family integrity, whereas U.S. ads tended to employ appeals emphasizing individual enjoyment, personal success, and independence.
Similarly, in other research, more conformity themes (e.g., respect for collective values and beliefs) and fewer uniqueness themes (e.g., rebelling against collective values and beliefs) were found to be present in Korean ads compared with U.S. ads. In studying humorous appeals, ads from both Korea and Thailand were found to contain more group-oriented situations than those from Germany and the United States.
Existing research has also indicated that culturally matched ad appeals are more likely to be persuasive than are mismatched appeals. U.S. respondents found ads emphasizing individualistic benefits to be more persuasive, and found ads emphasizing family or ingroup benefits to be less persuasive, than did Korean respondents. Also, Chinese participants responded more favorably to collective ad appeals (e.g., ‘‘share the moments of happiness’’) than to individualistic appeals (e.g., ‘‘the joy of self-expression’’), whereas the reverse was true for U.S. participants. In addition, advertisements in Mexico that depict values that are consistent with the local cultural norms and roles (e.g., familial norms and roles in Mexican culture) elicited more favorable attitudes and purchase intentions than did ads that depict inconsistencies.
Product characteristics, such as whether a product is personal or shared (i.e., privately used vs publicly visible), have been found to moderate the effect of culture on the persuasiveness of ad appeals. Only for shared or socially visible products—those purchased or used with in-group members—did strong cultural differences emerge between Americans and Koreans in Han and Shavitt’s 1994 study (Fig. 1) as well as between Americans and Chinese in other research.
2.1.2. Horizontal and Vertical Cultural Orientations
Within the individualism–collectivism framework, a distinction between horizontal and vertical societies has recently been introduced. Members of horizontal societies, such as Denmark and Sweden, value equality and view the self as having the same status as others in society. In contrast, members of vertical societies view the self as differing from others along a hierarchy, accepting inequality and believing that rank has its privileges. In comparison with the individualism–collectivism dimension, the horizontal–vertical dimension is less explored. However, recent studies have begun to examine the implications of the horizontal–vertical cultural dimension. In 2002, Nelson and Shavitt found that members of a relatively vertical society (the United States) are more likely to endorse achievement values than are members of a horizontal society (Denmark). Moreover, Shavitt and colleagues’ 2002 research suggested that vertical collectivism in the United States is associated with a tendency to be persuaded by ad appeals to status and hierarchy.
In 2000, Gurhan-Canli and Maheswaran demonstrated that Japanese consumers tended to favor products from their own country over foreign products, whereas American consumers tended to favor high quality products regardless of the countries of origin of these products. Mediational analyses indicated that the vertical dimension of individualism and collectivism accounted for the country-of-origin effects in Japan. This is consistent with the cultural orientation in Japan—vertical collectivism—in that Japanese tend to believe in and value the superiority of the in-group over others.
In terms of advertising content, studies examining humor executions in ads have indicated that relationships between the central characters in ads where humor was intended were more often unequal in high power distance cultures (or vertical cultures such as Korea and Thailand) than in low power distance cultures (or horizontal cultures such as Germany); in the latter, these relationships were more often equal. Such unequal relationships in the ads are believed to reflect the hierarchical interpersonal relationships that are more likely to exist in high power distance (or vertical) cultures.
2.2. Self-Construal: Cultural Differences at the Individual Level
In 1991, Markus and Kitayama proposed that individualistic and collectivistic distinctions affect how individuals define or construct themselves in relation to others. According to these authors, the cultural norms of individualism require defining oneself as an individual whose behavior is organized and made meaningful primarily by reference to one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This independent self-construal is associated with describing oneself with reference to individual psychological traits such as ‘‘I am easygoing.’’ On the other hand, the cultural norms of collectivism require individuals to see themselves as part of harmonious relationships and to recognize that their own behavior should seek benefits to their in-groups. This interdependent self-construal is associated with describing oneself with reference to social roles or memberships such as ‘‘I am in the gymnastics club.’’ Recent research has indicated that self-construals account for and moderate cultural-level persuasion effects.
2.2.1. Chronic Self-Construal
Cross-cultural experiments have demonstrated that consumers with a more interdependent self-construal responded favorably to ads with a connected theme (e.g., interdependence, togetherness), whereas consumers with a more independent self-construal responded favorably to ads with a separate theme (e.g., independence, autonomy).
Self-construals have also been found to affect regulatory focus. Regulatory focus is built on the general hedonic notion that people approach pleasure and avoid pain. In 2001, Aaker and Lee found that, for people with an independent self-construal, promotion focused information (e.g., drinking juice promotes energy or enjoyment of life) led to more positive attitudes toward a juice product. In contrast, for people with an interdependent self-construal, prevention-focused information (e.g., drinking juice helps to prevent disease) led to more positive attitudes.
2.2.2. Salient Self-Construal
Although an individual’s cultural orientation may strongly determine the self-construal that is chronically accessible, self-construals may shift in response to other factors such as situational accessibility, motives, and reference points. The effect of temporarily accessible self-construals on persuasion parallels that of chronic self-construals. For instance, regardless of whether self construal is measured with the Self-Construal Scale or is situationally activated, studies have shown a consistent effect of independent self-construal versus interdependent self-construal on preference for either promotion focused information or prevention-focused information. The persuasion implications of salient self-construals have been further evidenced among bicultural consumers in the United States, that is, individuals who have been equally influenced by East Asian and Western cultural orientations. For example, Lau-Gesk’s 2003 study found that an independent self-construal was temporarily activated when bicultural individuals were exposed to an individually focused appeal, and this in turn guided them to respond favorably to the advertised product. On the other hand, an interdependent self construal was activated when bicultural individuals were exposed to an interpersonally focused appeal, and this in turn guided them to respond favorably to the advertised product. A frame-switching mechanism has been used to explain these findings in that bicultural individuals appear to be capable of shifting between individualistic and collectivistic interpretive frames in response to persuasive cues.
2.3. Culture and Cognitive Processing of Advertising Appeals
Just as psychological research on culture has focused extensively on cognitive process issues, recent research has demonstrated that a consumer’s culture or cultural orientation influences the nature of information processing that accompanies a message.
Some studies along this line have focused on examining the effect of cultural orientation on persuasion by application of the Elaboration Likelihood Model/ Heuristic–Systematic Model. Individualism and collectivism appear to be associated with different perceptions of cue diagnosticity in the processing of ads, and these in turn result in different patterns of attitudinal outcomes. Because of their individualistic tendencies, Americans are relatively uninterested in others’ opinions; conversely, because of their collectivistic tendencies, people in Hong Kong tend to be more affected by the preferences of others. Consequently, among U.S. participants, product attribute information tends to be seen as more diagnostic than do consensus cues. In contrast, in 1997, Aaker and Maheswaran found that among Hong Kong participants, consensus cues are treated as relatively diagnostic. Moreover, in 2000, Aaker and Sengupta’s research demonstrated that individualistic versus collectivistic cultures are also associated with different strategies used in resolving incongruities between a source cue and product attribute information. In an individualistic cultural context, attribute information is perceived as more diagnostic than is a source cue and influences product evaluations. Hence, an attenuation strategy is used in information processing when incongruity between a source cue and attribute information occurs. In a collectivistic cultural context, where source information is relatively important and where there is less of a tendency to choose one type of information over another, the source cue and attribute information jointly influence evaluations. Hence, an additive strategy is applied when there is incongruity between a source cue and attribute information.
Culture also influences the role of affect in processing a message. Ego-focused (e.g., pride, happiness) versus other-focused (e.g., empathy, peacefulness) emotional appeals lead to more favorable attitudes among members of a collectivistic culture, whereas other-focused versus ego-focused emotional appeals lead to more favorable attitudes among members of an individualistic culture. This differs from the standard cultural congruity findings about persuasive effects. That is, relatively novel types of appeals, rather than culturally congruent appeals, elicit more elaboration. Because elaboration involves effortful thinking about the merits of a message as opposed to the use of simple cues, such elaborated thoughts tend to have a relatively large impact on evaluations.
2.4. Factors That Covary with Culture
Race, gender, and economic factors also affect ad content, ad processing, and attitude formation, although these effects are beyond the scope of this research paper. Very often, these variables will covary with culture, making studies of race, gender, and economic factors in conjunction with cultural ones particularly important.
The standard cultural congruity findings, suggesting that culturally matched ad appeals are more prevalent or are more likely to be persuasive, were reviewed earlier. However, a growing number of studies have indicated that the situation in rapidly transitioning economies may be more complex. For example, Westernized appeals, such as appeals to technology, individuality/independence, and youth/modernity, have been found to be rather salient in Chinese and Japanese ads and to have been used frequently in current Taiwanese advertising agencies. These cultural incongruity findings could be driven by government policies regarding internal development and modernization, public exposure to Western media, and demographic and geographic contact zones. In addition, consumers in developing countries tend to respond favorably to Western products. For example, in one study of Indian consumers, brands perceived as having nonlocal (Western) countries of origin were favored over brands perceived as local. Moreover, this effect was found to be stronger for consumers who have a greater admiration for the lifestyle in economically developed countries. These cultural incongruity findings are meaningful because, as discussed by Zhang and Shavitt in 2003, they suggest the important role that advertising plays in reshaping cultural values in developing countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth. Rather than reflecting existing cultural values, advertising content in those countries promotes new aspirational values such as individuality and modernity; hence, these new values become acceptable and desirable among consumers.
As the advertising industry has become increasingly globalized, there has been increased research attention given to the role of culture in advertising. Progress in understanding this role has been made on a number of fronts. This research paper has reviewed empirical research on the effects of a number of cultural variables on advertising-related processes. Distinctions between individualistic and collectivistic cultures have been demonstrated to have important implications for advertising content, advertising persuasion, and consumers’ cognitive responses. Parallel effects of culture and self-construal (independent vs interdependent) have been shown as well. In addition, studies on the distinction between horizontal and vertical cultural orientations within individualism–collectivism have begun to show advertising implications.
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