Cultural Conflict – Do we need to start thinking globally in our marketing?

By Affilorama Group
Cultural Conflict – Do we need to start thinking globally in our marketing?


Like it or not, we live in the global age. Telecommunications, satellites, the internet... we are increasingly connected to people in the far reaches of the world and they are connected to us. This interconnectivity has brought about many positive effects - one could argue that the more we're connected to people around the world, the more we might care about people in different countries and from different backgrounds.

But there are potential negative consequences too. What if, for example, an advertisement uses cultural references that make perfect sense in one country - only to be completely misinterpreted in another? A few years ago the ad would have never seen the light of day outside its country of origin. But in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, borders don't really exist, at least as far as information is concerned.

The scenario I've just described is exactly what happened with an Australian KFC ad. Before you play the ad embedded below, I want you to first think about your cultural background. If you are American, you will likely find the ad offensive - or at the very least, it will send off the "not-PC" alarm in your head. If you are from Australia, New Zealand or even England - you will probably have no idea what's going on and why people would consider this ad even remotely offensive.

Depending on your cultural background, you probably saw one of two different things. If you live outside the US, particularly in a country that plays cricket, you most likely saw an Australian cricket supporter sitting in the middle of a crowd of West-Indies cricket fans. He's in an ‘awkward situation' because he's an opposition team supporter and he breaks the tension by handing out a bucket of KFC - the aptly named "crowd pleaser".

No problem, right? Not quite!

If you are American then you very likely saw a white guy handing out fried chicken to black people - playing into a common racial stereotype - and you may have found the ad offensive.

The internet has erupted with controversy over the ad, which was eventually pulled in Australia, despite the fact that no-one in Australia complained about it. Keep in mind, the ad was never broadcast in the United States; it only found its way there via YouTube.

The real issue here is cultural misinterpretation. This racial stereotype does not exist in Australia, and given that the cricket supporters in the ad are West Indian, not African American, it is no surprise that Australians are a little confused as to what the fuss is all about.

The fact is, if this ad had just been viewed in Australia there wouldn't have been an issue - period. If it had been aired in the States...well, it just would never have been aired in the States. Most Americans I know have never even seen a cricket game, which is further evidence of lack of cultural context.

This is only the most recent in a long history of cultural advertising blunders - here are a few more examples:

  • When Pepsico advertised Pepsi in Taiwan with the ad "Come Alive With Pepsi", they had no idea that it would be translated into Chinese as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead."
  • Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.
  • Clairol introduced the "Mist Stick," a curling iron, into German only to find out that "mist" is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the "manure stick".
  • During its 1994 launch campaign, the telecom company Orange had to change its ads in Northern Ireland. Their successful campaign "The future's bright ... the future's Orange." However, in Northern Ireland, the term Orange suggests the (Protestant) Orange Order. The implied message that the future is bright, the future is Protestant, loyalist... didn't sit well with the Catholic Irish population.


However, the KFC ad is one of the first examples I've seen of an ad that is completely accepted in its own country, only to kick up controversy in another.

If this is the future of advertising then it marks an unprecedented paradigm shift: You don't just need to worry about the culture you're promoting too, you also have to worry about every culture that might come into contact with your ad.

It's very easy to be dismissive of these situations. Many Australians think the situation is ridiculous and are calling it "political correctness gone too far". However these people are missing the point too. The point is this ad is offensive to Americans - and the question is, should this affect how Australia advertises?

My initial reaction was NO WAY! But then I remembered this:

For those who don't know, this is the Haka, which is a traditional Maori (New Zealand's Indigenous population) war dance most commonly seen performed by the All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team. In this ad it is being performed (badly) by a group of Italian woman (the Haka is traditionally performed by men).

I'm not an overly sensitive person, but I wasn't happy with this ad - at the very least because it showed an utter disregard for the culture heritage of the Haka, which is something steeped in tradition and meaning. And I can certainly understand how it could be incredibly offensive to Maori. In this case, the adverts use continued - no one really cares that much when New Zealand kicks up a stink.

But how would you handle this? If you received an email from someone saying that the way you were promoting your website and affiliate product was culturally insensitive - even if they were from a culture that was not the intended recipient - how would you respond? Do you ignore their feelings on the matter, or do you respect the fact that there are cultural sensitivities you don't understand, and make changes to accommodate as best you can?

I want to hear your comments - but I don't want a debate on whether the KFC ad is racist (though you can certainly state your personal opinion!). The fact is that people of one culture find it offensive, and people of another don't. Also, as a side line, we won't tolerate any derogatory comments aimed at other users or groups of people - keep this debate civil people!

Finally, this is my last blog post for I'm leaving the company (and the country) to move back to Seattle. I've really enjoyed my time here at Affilorama and getting to know many of our users. Good luck to all of you in the future and I wish you success in all your endeavors - online and off :)

- Chris

Sharon 12 years ago

You're moving back to the suicide capital of the USA? Whatever for? It's been raining daily for weeks in this corner of the world.

Very interesting article. Mistakes happen and the world is small. I really don't think too much of political correctness but some things are obviously not going to marketable but also some things are unforseeable.

I lived in Europe for ten years and when I moved back to North America it was impossible to utter a few sentences without offending someone! Things have really changed here for the worse. All this "political correctness" is backfiring and making people hate each other more. We should all just laugh and be happy and stop taking everything do darn serious. It's bad for the immune system.
Chris Goddard 12 years ago
Thanks for your comment Sharon. Haha - moving back cos I'm a Husky at heart! :) (and actually Vegas is the Suicide capital of the states - and they don't have nearly as much good music!)

Perhaps you're right - however Europe tends to be more culturally homogeneous - for example when people of other cultures move to France, they are far more likely to assimilate more into French culture, whereas in the United States people keep their own culture - which in my opinion adds more to the culture as a whole in the long run.

I think it's easy to dismiss things like this as over politically correct when it's not something that offends you personally. Maybe we all need to be a little less sensitive when things offend us, but also more sensitive to the things that might offend others.
pvp 12 years ago
The U.S. used to be called the melting pot of the world because of our "diverse" ethnic makeup, however we have changed to a multi-cultural nation, which has given rise to political correctness. We are no longer a melting pot, we are more akin to a tossed salad, which is divisive, not diversity.

Regarding Political Correctness, and I'm using the german here, I could give a "Mist." As a native american indian, who knows a little about racism, prejudice, and stereotypes, I feel it's important to speak against political correctness at any opportunity.

That being said, there is no question I would change my site or advertisement in a heartbeat if it offended my target audience (unless it was intended). I would also change the advertisement if it were found to offend an entire culture of people, if their complaints were justified.

A major difference in the KFC example above, is that they are deeply rooted in the US culture! How could they not know the AU ad would be found offensive to black americans? They may as well have had a watermelon bouncing on his knee! That was a very short-sighted advertisment by a company with an international presence. Although, I still laughed when I saw it from my "US" perspective. I get a good laugh out of those evil stereotypes, no matter who they're about.

Personally I wouldn't worry about it too much either way. I'll do my best to advertise in the most effective manner for my target audience. I think the majority of people understand when an honest mistake has been made...I seriously doubt the people in Taiwan were fooled by Pepsi's promise to bring dead ancestors back to life. It may have been perceived as insensitive to the conservative culture there, but again, people know when an honest mistake has been made.

Adjust if necessary, then move on and let the people of the mist find another PC opportunity.

bob orbea 12 years ago

You are not lying about Vegas being the suicide capital of the U.S. I moved here a couple of years ago from L.A. for the housing prices but now I realize like a dummy why people commit suicide here....there's nothing to do but gamble and drink! I mean, L.A. has its bad side but it also has the beach, mountains, great weather, theater, museums, etc. I didnt realize how much I miss L.A. until I lived here for about 6 months. Now, I'm saving my nickels and dimes to make my escape back to L.A. A lot of people hate L.A. but growing up there you get used to traffic and smog and whatever. It sure beats Vegas for quality of life..I always liked the pictures of Seattle but the housing is really expensive like L.A.
Christoph Dollis 12 years ago
Have a safe flight and a happy landing, Chris.
Chris Goddard 12 years ago
@BLKRGMT76 I think though it's important to remember that just because the KFC brand is owned in America, the company in Australia is an Australian run subsidiary with few ties back to it's home country other than branding and licencing. This is the same as Coca-Cola, which though a global brand, is owned and operated world wide by different companies.

This ad would never have been vetted through ANY American KFC staff because that's simply not how companies are run internationally. I can understand your point, but I think that few inside the US actually understand the separation that many "US" companies have from their headquarters.

So how could they have not known? They answer is actually very very easily. Why would they bother to vet an ad in a country that it was never going to be broadcast?

I would guarantee that this ad was written and produced by an Australian advertising agency and approved by Australian KFC execs. I think the misconception is that because KFC is 'American' that the ad is also 'American' - this is simply not true.
Promotional Products 12 years ago

Thanks for sharing all of your insights with us. You will be missed.

Concerning this post. I think the more we are willing to commit to internet marketing and social media marketing, the more we must consider who may stumble across our stuff. We may want to make more of the global appeal, realizing that our product or services may not be relevant somewhere else, or even available elsewhere.
Jason Dodd 12 years ago
For those of you keeping tabs on our man Chris word on the street is he's made it safely back to the land of the free but not without getting a little frisky with a customs security officer by the name of John. It seems protecting freedom comes with a few downsides. :)
Danielle Bernier 12 years ago
I will miss his great articles!
Danielle, Canada ha! we are neighbour's now!
Shukor Aziz 12 years ago
I read with great interest of all comments above. If you all think that such things happen among countries wide apart around the globe, figure out what happened among us in small countries in Asia, where people have different languages that varied considerably. However, we are quite accustomed to such differences. For most of us we find it fun to see the differences in what it means which may be quite greatly.

Yes, internet has really opened up the diversity of cultures. Perhaps for those who think this is great, many other things will emerge in next few more years, months or weeks.

Yes, let us make this world free from unhappiness for all, instead of otherwise.
Cultural Stereotypes 12 years ago
Cultural conflict in our life is so topical... I think we shoul be more tolerant.
Ron Whitehouse 11 years ago
I think everyone, everywhere has just become too thinskinned. Most of us can tell when something was created specifically to hurt or ridicule and when something was created with no harmful intent. Too many people go around with a chip on their shoulder finding insult and injury in the slightest remark. Most of the world is filled with caring and loving people. As for the rest --- grow up.
cricket info 10 years ago
great job!!!