Cultural & iconic references in marketing – are you in touch or living in a white ivory tower?


Benny Hill’s, ‘Ernie, the fastest milkman in the West’  is a symbol of  a different time. How many people would get it today?

“I don’t get it,” is probably the second worse reaction you can get in a research group.

Over the years I have sat in many research groups and have been fascinated by both the psychology of people (especially in groups) and their portfolio of references.

Each generation, ethnic and demographic group grows up influenced by different media and social cultural references, as well as their parents influence.

Anyone with teen kids have probably found themselves commenting on the latest music track their kid is listening to, ” yep, I remember that the first time around”. Meanwhile grandad is thinking the same. Or as I said to my son once, “try listening to the original,” as I handed him a Black Sabbath CD.

Cultural, social, visual icons and references allow us to take short cuts in everything from the written word to graphics and video. It is especially important in time poor media like TV, an icon or cultural reference can speak a thousand words.

Comedy especially relies on us knowing what the comedian is referring to, which is why it is so hard for comics to take their comedy abroad. Comedian Freddie Starr went from being watched by millions to entertaining old ladies at seaside resorts because he didn’t move with the times and was still doing Max Wall impersonations to a generation who didn’t know who Max Wall was.

But how often do we ask if our target audience actually gets it? How often do we make assumptions based on our own values, beliefs and cultural experiences?

Working with a fairly international crew, we are constantly reminded of the cultural differences between little England and Europe.

The classic cultural cock-up of all time was the Pepsodent ad, “When you brush with Pepsodent, you’ll wonder where the yellow went.” The ad, ran in Arabic countries, left the audience puzzled because having yellow teeth was considered healthy, while white teeth was seen as bad.

A similar mistake was made with a poster campaign for family planning featuring a man with two kids smiling and a man with 8 kids looking unhappy. In a country where having lots of kids is seen as good no one could understand why the reactions were the wrong way round. It’s a bit like showing a man happier with a second hand Skoda than a new Audi.

A more recent example was an international ad featuring a milk man, this was a totally alien concept to many European consumers.

But as ads become more international (especially on the web) relying on icons and cultural references present a real challenge. It’s all too easy to assume too much which is why it’s essential to research with your target audience. Too many American brands think that the UK is just like America because we both speak English, but soon discover just how different our references can be.’

The ad industry is essentially staffed by educated middle classes (and predominately white), so it is no wonder so many ads reference this world. Many ads are still using the cliched happy white middle class family, all in perfect health with the perfect two kids, with a mixed race couple next door to keep the PC police happy. It therefore begs the question, how well do people in the white ivory towers of Adland really understand real consumers? Are they able to get into the mindset of a 17 year old single mum on a housing estate, or a middle aged Asian family?

This was very apparent when I was working on a number of very successful sexual health campaigns for charities including FPA and Brook. The government campaigns, by contrast, were aimed at typical middle class kids yet the problem was in a lower demographic who certainly don’t respond to clever ads. But then the now demised COI was more interested in making politicians look good in the media than actually changing social behaviour.

And what about the male, female divide? Given the fact that the average creative department is 85% male, it’s no wonder 91% of women think ads don’t understand them.

Age is also a significant factor, each generation grows up with a different portfolio of experiences and references. I saw a poster the other day using Victorian music hall graphics and language, a young intern that was with me was totally puzzled by it because she’d never seen a Victorian music hall poster so it was totally alien. I am the first to admit that I don’t get some of the references my kids use, especially language.

Britain is one of the ethnically mixed countries in the world, yet few ads reference the cultural differences.

So while we are chasing algorhythmns in a vain attempt to define human behavour and find out how people tick, we may be better off taking the lift to the ground floor and mixing with real people. To try and discover and understand the differences between people, and learn to speak