International Advertising in Western Europe: Should Differences in Uncertainty Avoidance Be Considered When Advertising in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain?

By Hoeken, Hans; van den Brandt, Corine et al. | The Journal of Business Communication, July 2003 | Go to article overview

International Advertising in Western Europe: Should Differences in Uncertainty Avoidance Be Considered When Advertising in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain?


Hoeken, Hans, van den Brandt, Corine, Crijns, Rogier, Dominguez, Nuria, Hendriks, Berna, Planken, Brigitte, Starren, Marianne, The Journal of Business Communication


There is an ongoing debate as to whether cultural differences necessitate adaptation of advertisements to local circumstances in international business communication. In particular, value appeals are thought to be culturally sensitive because cultures differ with respect to which values are considered important, and it is thought that appealing to important values is more, persuasive than appealing to ones less impel rant. This article reports on an experiment in which the persuasiveness of an appeal to security was compared to that of an appeal to adventure. The relative persuasiveness of these appeals was studied in countries (i.e., Belgium, France and Spain) that are characterized as high uncertainty avoidance cultures, and a country characterized as a low uncertainty avoidance culture: The Netherlands, Results showed that the two value appeals proved equally persuasive for all countries.

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Smeltzer (1993) suggests that the topic of international business communication is one of six requiring research emphasis. This call for attention has led to several articles and a special issue on international business communication (e.g.. Ulijn, 2000), Varner (2000) has developed a model for the interrelationship between business strategy, intercultural strategy, and communication strategy. Her models posits that the topic of business communication requires an independent research agenda about intercultural interaction, Indeed, research has paid little attention to the quality of persuasive documents used in international business communication. Most investigations have been conducted to detect differences in organization, tone, formality or rhetorical choices in business letters from various countries (see Alred, 1997; Bell, Dillon, & Becker, 1995; Haneda & Shima, 1982; Varner, 1988). Characteristic of these letters is that they are sent from one person to another person.

A notable exception is Graves (1997), who described the influence of culture on direct mail letters written by American and Canadian writers. Letters were sent to a large audience whose members were unknown to the sender, Graves then analyzed the rhetorical choices made by letter authors. Shelby (1998) defines rhetorical choice as the "preference for the 'most appropriate' option for a given situation" (p. 338), According to Shelby, the designer should take audience preferences into account to produce high quality documents. As Graves notes, these preferences may be culturally influenced. What is appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another. For instance, Boomer and Varner (2001) analyzed differences in the design of a direct marl letter from American Express that was sent to potential customers in the United States and to potential customers in Mexico. The researchers discussed the choices made in terms of the cultural differences that exist between the two countries.

We address the issue concerning the extent to which cultural differences require different rhetorical choices in the design of advertisements. As is the case for writers of direct mail, designers of advertisements do not know members of the intended audience. When designing advertisements, internationally operating companies must decide whether to standardize their marketing operations or to adapt them to local circumstances. Advertising standardization implies using the same visual and verbal message (except for the language). Whether such a standardized approach is in a company's best interest or if a company should develop different advertisements for each country separately has given rise to a lively debate. We briefly touch upon the debate in the next section. Afterward, we review the relevant empirical evidence on the matter. We find that several content analysis studies have been conducted on differences in the design of advertisements in Western Europe. However, we find that no such experimental research has been conducted on the issue of adaptation. …

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