Stop saying multi-cultural; it’s cultural Australia

How much does a consumer's cultural background influence the way they respond to marketing? Dentsu Mitchell and Neuro-Insight joined forces to find out, and David Hearn of Dentsu Mitchell reveals the findings.

28% of Australians are born overseas. In addition, 18% speak a language other than English at home. david-hearn-dentsu-mitchell-low-res

More importantly, these groups control over $96 billion or 20% of all Australian household expenditure.

In Australia, we spend approximately $8b on advertising and, while unaudited, $30m is allocated to multi-cultural advertising. With an ever-increasing pressure on the marketing dollar is it possible that the Australia represented in advertising is at odds with what we actually look like?

The notion we even use the term ‘multi-cultural’ allows us to create a segmentation approach to comms. A ‘nice have’ in planning rather than ‘must have’. Are we really ‘multi-cultural Australia’ or simply ‘a cultural Australia’?

We wanted to understand the inherent need to appeal to a mass-market audience while ensuring personalisation through global and cultural sensitivities. Did iconic Australian ads resonate across all cultural groups? Did it alienate?

New evidence suggests that cultural sensitivity – whilst an essential dimension of contemporary creative design – is more important under certain circumstances than in others.

For example, when is it acceptable to generalise about consumers who are all of the same nationality or who live in the same geographic region?

Likewise, when is it necessary to apply a segmentation based on country of birth or cultural background?

While previous research has certainly demonstrated the differences between East Asian/Australian cultures, little is known about how these differences translate into real-world creative responses.

However tight or broad the targeting may be, we believed there was a compelling case to apply the same cultural filter to both creative and media investments, to ensure that message and media are being aligned on cultural grounds.

Using this as a premise, we decided to explore the question further by using neuroimaging methods to examine the potential differences that exist within these two groups.

Our tool of choice was Steady State Topography (SST), a neuroimaging methodology with superior temporal resolution that allows for the continuous tracking of rapid changes in brain function.

Our respondents may not even be consciously aware of the (often very) subtle ways in which they respond to TV commercials.  We tested initial exposure, as evidence to date showed that advertising’s greatest effect occurs when an individual moves from zero to one exposure.

Two principal groups were identified by country of birth – Australian and Chinese. Apart from these two cultural differences, the samples were matched in terms of current citizenship, age and gender. 100 participants (aged 18-45) were drafted for this study, half of which were newly-arrived (within the past two years) Chinese immigrants to Australia.

Dentsu Mitchell win Neuro-Insight award at MSIX 2016 for 'Stop Saying Multi-Cultural, It’s ‘Cultural Australia'

Dentsu Mitchell win Neuro-Insight award at MSIX 2016 for ‘Stop Saying Multi-Cultural, It’s ‘Cultural Australia’

Participants watched 12 different commercials embedded within the context of a prime time Australian TV program. The commercials were taken from a variety of different sectors, consisting of both brand and product/offer commercials, and varied in length from 15 seconds to 90 seconds.

We uncovered advertising themes or executional styles that carried statistical significance between these two cultural groups. These differences highlight the case for marketing communications to consider to what extent the strategy and/or execution is universally effective and truly multicultural or, whether the campaign may be interpreted differently among different cultural groups.

The results showed some interesting differences between our two audiences.

  1. Chinese viewers had higher engagement with commercials that featured a prominent soundtrack that is integrated within the context of the narrative

Chinese viewers had 16% higher levels of engagement than Australian viewers in commercials that featured a very prominent soundtrack that is integrated within the context of the narrative. This result echoes previous research that has shown that East Asians were more attuned to the processing of background information. To a degree, this is also expected given limited English proficiency.

  1. Chinese viewers did not enter into a period of conceptual closure when presented with a price point

Chinese viewers did not enter into a period of conceptual closure during the presentation of price points whereas Australian viewers did. Conceptual closure occurs when the brain perceives a narrative sequence to have ended, known technically as an ‘event boundary’.

The response of the Australian viewer is not uncommon, and is something that we have observed before in other western markets. In contrast, the response of the Chinese viewers is of significant interest – as their responses were 38% higher on average across all commercials, during these specific pricing and offer sequences.


Figure 1: Comparison of differences between Australian & Chinese cultures at the specific point of price in a television commercial.

  1. The use of strong stereotypes can be polarising.

The use of strong stereotypes can be polarising. Chinese viewers in this study responded negatively when presented with an Asian stereotype in one of the commercials.

The response triggered a powerful conceptual closure event and was associated with a very strong ‘withdraw’ component.  What isn’t fully appreciated however, is how these moments can completely alter the complexion of the storyline thereafter.

Another scenario was uncovered in an auto commercial, where the specific scene involved what we would describe as a typically ‘Australian larrikin’ theme.

The Australian audience responded very strongly, whereas the Chinese audience responded very weakly. If this moment aligned with an important branding moment, then only the Australian audience would link branding to the storyline. Conversely, branding would be lost on the Chinese audience.


Figure 2: Comparison of differences between Australian & Chinese cultures at the specific point of using a culturally sensitive theme; i.e. Japanese personality.

The two fields of marketing communications that stand to gain equally from these results are creative and media. In combination, an advertiser could expect considerably higher gains in effectiveness: i.e. when media is optimised to match creative from the same cultural perspective.

Unless a ‘big idea’ can address innate universal truths and traits it will be out-of-sync with today’s market landscape.

We live in an era of increasing media diversity. This offers advertisers and their agencies the ability to tailor precisely to cultural diversity.

During a 30 second ad, interest – and impact – is fluid. As a result conceptual closure has a far greater effect than we first anticipated. The mental fuel required to reconnect to valuable and connectivity is lost. And cultural nuances can, and do, derail even the most crafted brand story.

So, we need to test and plan early. Too often cultural consideration is given at the end of the creative process. And yet culture is far more complex than creating ‘in language’ assets.

Profile target audiences and recruit during conceptual stages to accordingly.

To connect with Australia, we need to understand Australia. This requires marketing to see beyond a demographic, beyond a data point, or statistic – beyond ‘multi-cultural’ as a sub-section of society and, as it should be, ‘cultural Australia’.

David Hearn is head of communications design for Dentsu Mitchell.


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