Have you ever thought about why certain websites appeal to you more than others? Or why some ads seem to strike a chord with you while others leave you cold?

Chances are your cultural background has something to do with it, and clever marketers know how to play into those subconscious preferences.

Marketing materials, including websites and ads, generally consist of a combination of words and images. Different cultures place different emphasis on each of these components, which affects the way messages are perceived. Scholars differentiate between high-context and low-context cultures, a concept developed by American anthropologist Edward Hall. While low-context cultures prefer a straightforward, “tell-it-like-it is” approach with an emphasis on words and text, high-context cultures rely heavily on contextual clues and visuals.

In high-context communications, very little information is transmitted explicitly; rather, it is found in the physical context or internalized in the recipient. The United States and Germany, for example, are low-context cultures, as are most Western countries. Eastern countries such as China, Japan, and Arab nations, on the other hand, are generally high-context cultures.

Another useful classification scheme that can help marketers understand foreign cultures consists of six dimensions outlined by the Dutch scholar Geert Hofstede, which define societies based on their general, collective preferences in the following areas:

  • Power distance
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Individualism
  • Masculinity
  • Long-term orientation
  • Indulgence

Germany and the United States, for example, are very similar in their attitudes towards power distance and masculinity, but are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to long-term orientation. As a society with a pragmatic, long-term vision, Germans have values that center around the future, such as perseverance or thrift, while Americans, a short-term-oriented society, are generally more concerned with the past and present.

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(Image source: http://geert-hofstede.com)

The two ads below show how this difference can play out in advertising. Both ads are for car manufacturers. On the left is an ad for Daimler in a German magazine, while the Toyota ad on the right is from a US magazine. Each ad addresses the cultural preferences of its target market.


The German Daimler ad on the left scores high on the long-term orientation index. It starts with the headline: “The best way to get the world to move forward is to increase its mobility.” There is a clear focus on the future, which is one of the main characteristics of long-term orientation. The ad then goes on to talk about pioneering new inventions that will make the world a better place by turning ideas into realities. Germans are concerned with the future, how to preserve our world and how to make things better, and this ad very effectively communicates that Daimler is right there with them in this endeavor.










In contrast, the American Toyota ad on the right scores low in terms of long-term orientation. “Started my Camry. Wanted tacos for lunch. Crossed down into Baja. Joined a soccer game.” The nonchalant copy, paired with the image of a guy who is enjoying his food in the midst of chaos all around him, proclaims proudly that living in the moment is cool. “One bold action leads to another,” the ad states. The message here is: “Buy a Toyota Camry, and live your live by going with the flow.” The focus is on the now rather than the future.

By keeping this distinction between high-context and low-context cultures, as well as different cultural dimensions, in mind when designing your marketing materials, you can create a stronger appeal to your target market. You want to form a connection with your international audiences and show them you care about them and their cultural values. Above all, you want to avoid confusing them – or worse, offending them.

About the author - Marion Rhodes

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