4 TV commercials that use culture to make the sale

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By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Using aspects of culture in visual advertising can be very rewarding, but be aware of the risks.

Companies can really benefit from positioning culture and the arts close to the heart of their operations, and if you read my post, International business: 2 dozen reasons to use corporate cultural diplomacy you’ll see how. I recently shared to League Cultural Diplomacy’s Facebook Page three examples of advertisements where companies expertly use aspects of culture to promote awareness of their brand and corporate values in order to drive sales.

The first video, shown below, advertises the Cillit Bang range of cleaning products. Most TV ads selling cleaning products are dead boring, featuring ‘housewives’ gushing over a spray cleaner or dishwasher tablet. Late last year, a Cillit Bang advertisement using this traditional approach was banned in Spain because, as The Independent reported, an “Ad watchdog ruled the commercial was ‘discriminatory for assigning a role according to gender’”.  Their new advertisement is a far cry from that.

(see https://youtu.be/LHizW4PLw2Q )

The cross cultural benefits of this advertisement are clear. Dance is practiced in every culture and as no words are spoken, it circumvents the language barrier, allowing it to be screened in any country and enjoyed the world over.

In 8 business lessons in soft power from The Future of Power by Joseph Nye I outline how companies can benefit from developing their ‘soft power’ in much the same way that nations do, and I argue that soft power makes brands more credible and attractive. Aspects of culture, such as music, dance, food, cooking, and fashion can all be used by companies to develop their soft power. These days, trotting out tiresome old stereotypes about any group can only be harmful to a brand’s image, and Cillit Bang have responded well to the Spanish ban with a more sophisticated approach.

Last year the Western Sydney University (WSU) released a widely acclaimed series of TV ads using the same non-verbal approach but adding another universal aspect of culture that I discussed in the previously mentioned post; story-telling. In that post I quote Nye:

In persuasion, rational argument appealing to facts, beliefs about causality, and normative premises are mixed with the framing of issues in attractive ways and the use of emotional appeals… outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins.

 We can see in the WSU advertisement (shown below) how the crafty use of storytelling can appeal to the emotions. When it comes to creating a story that will attract students, the Western Sydney University, whilst competing against older, more prestigious and probably better financially resourced universities, has a story that wins.

In a paper published by The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy titled Benefits for Corporations to Engage in Corporate Cultural Diplomacy, the Institute argues that the corporate use of culture can contribute to brand image, develop a positive public image and help espouse corporate brand values, and we can see this strongly in this advertisement. Whilst anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment is being expressed nightly on Australian TV and from the mouths of the nations elected representatives, this advertisement strongly declares the University’s corporate values, demonstrating its inclusive approach and empathy for immigrants and refugees. Like the Cillit Bang commercial, this ad could be inexpensively adapted for use in non-English speaking countries, and the approach used will work well to attract students from overseas, those from non-European backgrounds and people who want to study in an inclusive environment.

(see https://youtu.be/buA3tsGnp2s )

Corporations can use soft power in the same way that governments do. Nye, who coined the term ‘soft power; defines it as

the ability to affect others through the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuading, and eliciting positive attraction in order to obtain preferred outcomes.

Before saying that generally,

the types of resources associated with hard power include tangibles such as force and money. The types of resources associated with soft power often include intangible factors such as institutions, ideas, values, culture, and the perceived legitimacy of policies.

Or, in other words:

Hard power is push; soft power is pull

Via this series of commercials, the Western Sydney University (WSU) is framing the agenda and eliciting positive attraction to generate “pull” by espousing their corporate values and culture. One of the unexpected outcomes of the video series was the release of a satirical video (shown below), not produced by WSU, but which takes their advertisements and applies the same style and techniques to mock one of their competitors, the University of Sydney (USyd).  USyd is often perceived to be elitist and only for the wealthy, something a recent furore over a program to exclusively allow students from an elite private school to gain university entrance without sitting the Higher School Certificate did little to dispel. Whilst USyd might have more prestige and other tangible resources, it appears that within the world of visual advertising at least, WSU is winning the soft power battle for hearts and minds simply because it tells its stories better.

(see https://youtu.be/f8pPzEReJsw)

The following advertisement demonstrates some of the complexities of using culture in advertising. Whilst I personally think it’s great, it has been labelled “terrible” by The New Statesman, “cringeworthy” by Business Insider and criticised as “the tallyhoification of British culture” by The Guardian. The ad, shown below, is played to visitors on airplanes in descent to London’s Heathrow airport. Here the brilliant Stephen Fry waits politely in a queue – which is perhaps the most British of all activities (even looters in the 2011 London Riots queued before looting shops). Whilst queuing, he explains some of the cultural quirks commonly found in Britain and urges visitors to Heathrow Airport and Britain to “make yourself at home”. Of course, sometimes the delays at Heathrow are so long that you have no choice other than to make yourself at home. The advertisement itself, with its self-mocking good humour is very British; it has great appeal because humour is universal and self-deprecation opens doors the world over. The whole advertisement is a light-hearted discussion of culture, and in a nation seemingly obsessed with how “they” (immigrants) are different to “us” (Brits), this ad turns the conversation 180 degrees and looks at how it is “we” (the Brits) who are the odd ones.

Although the ad received a very positive reception, the fact that writers for three of my favorite papers, The New Statesman, The Guardian and Business Insider, each detest the ad highlights some of the dangers of using aspects of race or culture as a marketing tool. Companies using culture to market themselves need to have a full understanding of the risks of stereotyping and cultural appropriation in advertising and should take expert advice. In this instance, the objection is that it’s the British people that are being negatively stereotyped. The Guardian surmises that the commercial, through the stereotyping of British people narrows visitor’s concepts of its culture down to the single idea “that Britain is basically a 64 million person-strong queue that is deeply concerned with the weather” whilst ignoring “modern, progressive, multicultural” Britain, to quote The New Statesman. This is not an unreasonable interpretation and it could easily be concluded that the advertisement is doing the nation a disservice by presenting itself as being “trapped in a time-capsule from the Victorian era” as Business Insider remarks. However, what each of these writers ignores is the fact that the advertisement for the most part wasn’t produced for them or the benefit of the British people, but rather for the benefit of new arrivals. In any case, the complaints demonstrate that where any company relies on stereotypes in their advertising there is the likelihood of a backlash.

(see https://youtu.be/K7cFXSDN_5k )

Of course I’m a bit more sensitive when it’s my own culture being stereotyped and narrowly defined. A recent Australian TV ad used aspects of culture but relied on old and wildly inaccurate stereotypes. The advertisement shown below, produced by Meat & Livestock Australia, implores Aussie’s to eat lamb on Australia Day. Whereas the key messages in each of the Cillit Bang, Heathrow and WSU ads I’ve shown above are of empowerment, (the WSU series is called “Unlimited”), the Australia Day lamb add seeks to very narrowly define and limit what it means to be Australian. You must eat lamb on Australia Day, demands the ad (despite the fact that it’s never been a particular tradition), you mustn’t be a vegan (of course there are plenty of Aussie vegans making the world a better place), you must speak in an ocker Aussie accent (the type of which no one has spoken since 1958 and probably never in Adelaide) and, if you’re living abroad on Australia day it must be a terrible experience (untrue – I’d rather be anywhere in the world than Australia on Australia Day). This type of boxed-in thinking about what it means to be Australian is very common and exemplifies the cramped sense of masculinity that dominates Australian life. I suspect this ad would be popular within the racist Reclaim Australia movement – but what an old-fashioned load of baloney – Australia’s greatest strength is its diversity.

(see https://youtu.be/7i15OPuFvmA )

What I like about the WSU and Heathrow Airport ads is that they both use aspects of culture without any reliance on unhelpful stereotypes of foreigners that disempower particular groups. Immigrants to Australia and Britain will feel more positive about their new country because of these commercials and unlike the Aussie lamb ad, these positive and life-affirming commercials encourage people to be at home in their own skins. The WSU and Heathrow ads in particular are positive, empowering and provide great examples of how companies can use aspects of culture to drive sales and deliver wider benefits within society.

Do you know any good examples of advertisements that use aspects of culture to convey a message or help build a company’s soft power? Share a link if you do!

If you need a cultural consultant to advise on your advertising needs please get in touch!

photo credit: 45274-001: Scaling Up Renewable Energy Access in Eastern Indonesia (Sumba Iconic Island Initiative) via photopin (license)

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