Varying views of smut
Many years ago, I worked for a European company that was trying to sell its products in the U.S. The pre-existing TV ad for one product line showed a woman in a confessional recounting a torrid evening. On the other side of the wall, the priest was first shocked -- and then turned on.
The ad had no on-camera speaking so that it could be individually dubbed for each of the many countries where the product sold. However, it was clear that we could never air it here in the U.S.
Do I need to spell it out? Graphic language. In a Roman Catholic confessional. Tempting a priest to forsake his vows? Oh. My. God.
Now, this happened at a time when most marketing was mass marketing. Since then, digital has ushered in a shift in thinking -- about segmentation, and about how something revolting to one person can be very appealing to another.
But not everything has changed. Religion, for example, is still something that brands stay clear of in the U.S. Here's why: A Newsweek poll in 2007 found that 91 percent of Americans believe in God, and the American Religious Identification Survey reported this year that 71 percent of Americans consider themselves Christian. That's down from 86 percent in 1990, but it should be bloody apparent that spoofing the Sermon on the Mount would not be good copy over here for a big brand.
In Europe, religious belief is far less prevalent. For example, only 23 percent of Swedes believe in God. That statistic stands at 34 percent in France, 38 percent in the U.K., and 47 percent in Germany.
Such cultural differences also exist in other areas. Sexuality tends to be a prickly area in the U.S. Certainly plenty of brands use it, but there are differences in how brands use it here versus in other countries, as we will see later in this article.
Violence, by contrast, tends to be less of a big deal here. For example, many of the family oriented cable channels here load their schedules with old Westerns in which no one is left standing at the end. (At least no one non-white.) And that brings us to race. Race is a very touchy topic here, and as a result, marketers tend not to address it.
So what? Well, I bring it up because we work in digital, where national boundaries are blurred. It's important that we recognize these cultural differences, particularly when we serve international brands. After all, many of these themes, though considered scandalous among U.S. audiences, can be very effective in other countries and cultures. Of course, the U.S. is obviously not the only country in which one needs to tread carefully when addressing certain issues -- but it's the only one I know firsthand, so there you go.
In this article, I'll examine a number of campaigns that may have worked well where they ran, but would have a very tough time securing an Effie in the U.S.