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Visual communication in West to East cross-cultural advertising: the use of sex appeal in China and the UK

Paul B Doherty

Submitted to: RIBM Doctoral Symposium 2011 30th-31st March

Paul Doherty Research Institute for Business and Management Manchester Metropolitan University Business School Aytoun Street Aytoun Building Manchester M1 3GH Tel: +44(0)7917 344420 E-Mail: PAUL.DOHERTY2@stu.mmu.ac.uk

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

Introduction to the research field a literature review

Liu & Li (2005) ask Does Sex Sell in China? The use of sex appeal and sexualised imagery has long been an important and overt feature of advertising campaigns worldwide and arguably extremely successful tactic, in terms of generating attention and interest (Reid & Soley, 1981), enhancing ad recall (Steadman, 1969), brand recognition, positive brand image, audience interest in considering the ad (Reichert et al., 2001), generating powerful emotional responses (Hoyer & MacInnis, 2001) ultimately enhancing the persuasive power of the ad (Saunders, 1996; Reichert, 2001) and, indirectly, influencing purchasing intention with subsequent positive sales effects (Grazer & Keesling, 1995). The employment of sex appeal has been increasingly prominent and explicit (Reichert, 2004) - particularly in competitive, ad-saturated western markets such as the US and has become one of the most effective advertising tactics in these markets (Price, 2002). This increase in the importance and usage of sex appeal has been reflected in the western marketing research literature but still comparatively little research has yet been conducted on the topic in China now an extremely important market for many western multinational advertisers and one in which the usage of sex appeal in advertising has been visibly growing in recent years (Liu, 2009). That contemporary Chinese consumers are culturally foreign in many respects to the home markets of western advertisers only increases the importance and complexity of research into consumer evaluations of the meanings of imagery within these ads in a cross-cultural marketing communication context. Advertisers are concerned with creating positive brand images by communicating certain desired messages to local consumers via their choice of ad content (for international, cross-cultural campaigns the image, rather than copywriting, is the primary element in which to encode these messages), frequently employing tactics such as sex appeals to gain attention and transmit this message. For example, ads may depict a sexually attractive female model as being successful, glamorous or popular with men - whom female audiences within the target market wish to emulate by purchasing the advertised product portrayed as associated with these qualities. Much literature in this field therefore use survey questionnaires to measure evaluations of these images by target groups of consumers and related them to the respondents stated overall brand image or ultimate purchasing intentions comparing the responses of consumers in the country of interest to an equivalent group within other countries - either with other Asian cultures or with a Western market (usually the US). These survey-led studies quantitatively identify present-day local attitudes toward tropes such as sex appeal amongst a relevant demographic within target national
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Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

markets, with the purpose of contributing to the localisation vs standardisation debate for advertisers operating within those countries and the level of content adaptation appropriate when employing such appeals to the demographic. Findings usually account for any observed cross-national differences/similarities with reference to particular societal values or dimensions of national culture identified in theoretical models such as Hofstede (2001; 2005), de Mooij & Hofstede (2010), Hall (1973; 1990) and Trompenaars & Wooliams (1997; 2004). In addition to the standardization vs localization strategic debate, international advertisers must also make choices as to the nature and extent of ad content localisation i.e. which aspects of ad content, imagery, style etc. to tailor to local consumers tastes and cultural requirements and how. The other type of study prevalent within the literature regarding the use of sex appeal (and other sexualised imagery and content tropes) thus uses content analysis again quantitatively - to identify and describe contemporaneous trends in ad content within two or more national markets in a quantitative comparative content analysis. Findings are again accounted for with reference to the same body of literature on modelling national cultural values. Both content analyses and response-related research attempt to relate crossnational and/or intra-national gendered attitude differences (to sex appeal and/or to the visual presentation of ad imagery in general) to related cross-cultural marketing theoretical concepts usually specific dimensions of national culture, such as cultural masculinity/femininity (Hofstede, 1980), the neutrality/emotionality of public expression (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997), information textuality in communications (Hall, 1973) and others from such models. Notable examples of such content analyses include Albers_Miller & Gelb (1996); Albers-Miller & Stafford (1999); An (2007); An & Kim (2007); Ji (2009); Li (2009); Cheong (2010); and Zhang (2010). Okazaki, Mueller & Taylor (2010) develop a useful methodology considering both content and response (to the use of hard/soft-sell appeals) across Eastern and Wetstern cultures, but using Japan and the US as example markets. Relevant survey-led studies involving sex appeal in China include Liu & Cheng (2006); Liu, Cheng & Li (2009); and Liu (2009). Though Terlutter, Diehl & Mueller (2010) have called for the revision of the use of cultural models such as Hofstede and successfully demonstrated the application of the GLOBE framework of cultural dimensions to this field (exploring attitudes toward the use of assertiveness in ad appeals, albeit only across Western countries) it is still possibly over-simplistic (perhaps even misleading) to rely upon the explanatory power of allocating the entire population of a nation a particular (permanent) relative value on these scales. Meaning is produced by consumers in a given society within the context of a permanently changing configuration of such interacting cultural constructs (and many others) whose own relative explanatory importance within the social system will always be undergoing evolution. It is therefore desirable in understanding the meaning making processes which produce changing attitudes/responses to visual communications to always consider the specific combination of local historical/socio-economic/ideological/political/pop-cultural contexts for each individual market.

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

The success of appeals and images in communicating the desired message depends upon both the initial interpretation of the information within the imagery by local audiences and their subsequent evaluation of the perceived message. Even if the intended message is decoded and understood by the audience, this message may not be congruent with local consumer values and the response may not be favourable, having a negative effect on brand image. In pre-empting local responses to the use of sex appeal, advertisers, when constructing these images, must therefore consider not just the set of local cultural values related to sexuality but, more fundamentally, understand processes of meaning making (and evaluating visual commercial information) in contemporary Chinese consumer society that underlie the formulation of evolving attitudes towards depictions of sex, sexy and sexuality. If advertisers understand how and why particular social constructs give rise to differing attitudes and responses to sex appeal across cultures, then they will be able to better communicate as dynamic cultures around the globe evolve as opposed to descriptive quantitative studies offering a snapshot of values and the observed responses of a small group at appoint in time and tailor the messages they transmit within ad imagery appropriately. Chinese society is a context in which such structures are changing particularly rapidly. Berger (2004) highlights the difficulties faced by researchers in measuring the commercial, social and cultural impact of individual advertisements and campaigns (half of all advertising is wasted, we just dont know which half) but this also suggests both the continued importance of research in the field and also its continuing deficiencies and potential need for methodological refinement. Berger (2004) also draws attention to the cumulative effect of advertising on society and that its most powerful communicative processes work at subconscious level on the individuals that comprise social groups within a culture. Furthermore, ads that evoke emotional responses within the individual have possibly the most influence on the subconscious. Hoyer & MacInnis (2001) remind us that sex appeal is a very effective way of generating strong emotional responses in an audience. In terms of understanding the communicative and meaning-making processes, within a given culture, that generate audiences responses to advertising appeals, Berger (2005) therefore proposes a media analysis approach that combines semiotics, sociological analysis, ideological (Marxist) and psychoanalytic criticism. This is particularly relevant to understanding how sex appeal works to sell products and why attitudes and responses to the use of these appeals vary across societies where particular cultural constructs and values differ. However, this approach remains rare in cross-cultural comparative advertising literature.

Communications involving sexuality are gender-sensitive by nature (Anne,1971; Garret, 1993; Bhat, Leigh & Wardlow, 1998; Reichert et al, 2001) and sex appeal tactics continue to vary in execution, style and explicitness according to audience gender of such media (Reichert, 2004). Some content analyses (e.g. Ji, 2009) therefore split ad samples according to media gender (e.g. comparing those found in mens and womens magazines) and response studies often split each market group according to gender, testing for differences between male and female attitudes (e.g. Liu, 2009).

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

Again though, it is necessary to fully consider the myriad cultural and historical contexts of a society rather than rely on the application of Hofstede to descriptive studies. Confucianism still underpins social structures of China, its ideologies including double standards toward public and private expression of sexuality, sexual morality and female chastity have a continuing influence on Chinese society as it does in other Cofucianist cultures such as Korea (Shim, 2001), observable in the high level of conservatism regarding public displays and open, explicit depictions of sexuality in contemporary China (Jeffrey, 2005). Even amongst a culturally similar demographic, audience response to sex appeal advertising has been shown to differ fundamentally according to audience gender, with evaluations of imagery being sensitive to degrees of explicitness (all other things being equal) at different levels for male and female consumers and also having unequal responses to the use of male/female models. Though attitudes toward sex appeal is clearly a gender-sensitive social construct across cultures, cultural models such as Hofstede would suggest that a more equitable attitude across male and female consumers within cultures such as contemporary UK society. It is therefore always instructive when performing cross-cultural comparative analyses between China and Western markets to consider audience gender in order to examine the continuing Confucian bias in Chinese society and the implications it has on sexual content differences between China and other countries. In surveybased response studies this would be achieved by splitting samples according to respondent gender as per Liu (2009). In content-based studies including comparative content analyses this has been done by considering the medium in which sample ads are placed (for example within male versus female oriented lifestyle magazines) as per Ji (2009). However, few (if any) comparative studies (whether content or response driven) have been conducted considering sex appeal across contemporary Chinese and UK markets. Similarly, qualitative textual analyses can be performed on a comparative crosscultural basis by performing a semiotic analysis of ads within both male and femaleoriented media within China and their counterparts in the UK, US etc. This however, has not been attempted (to this researchers knowledge in the context of comparing sex appeal advertising in China and a Western market, whether split according to audience gender or otherwise.

Why further research is needed As above, sex appeal is an increasingly important tactic in international advertising including within China and one that is culturally sensitive in terms of local audience attitudes. There remains a dearth of comparative research involving young consumers in China with those in the UK. Furthermore, current methodologies for such studies need to go beyond descriptive research into specific phenomena differences between specific markets at a point in time - suggests the existence of broad themes (e.g sex appeal tropes) and crossnational differences/similarities. The subconscious nature of advertising effects
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Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

negates the power of survey studies to explain underlying social constructs within a culture that impact upon consumer meaning making processes when decoding advertising visuals and responding to sex appeals - which then inform attitudes towards a brand and (and ultimately, cumulatively, the success of the ad via impact upon purchasing intentions). There continues to be an explanatory reliance on models such as Hofstede etc. which compare static nationwide values. Semiotics as a qualitative research approach to investigating how signs attain their meanings instead identifies and evaluates the true meaning behind consumer responses to advertising (a sign-based process) and allows researchers to decode their cultural frames of reference... by providing a deeper understanding of consumers motivations (Gordon, 1999) i.e. the nature of combinations of social structures within different cultures which give rise to different attitudes and responses to sex appeal between cultures including those which, according to Hofstede etc. have similar values and therefore would otherwise be expected to exhibit similar attitudes. This means that results of this study can be applied combined with a knowledge of popular culture and socio-economic context - to young contemporary consumer cultures within China, rather than reducing all consumers to a broad national set of stereotypical values. Furthermore, these consumers can then be compared with a more relevant (for marketing purposes) set of young Western consumers internationally, according to clusters of consumers that are culturally similar. Lawes (2002) argues the case for increased usage of semiotics in marketing research which effectively involves interpreting cultural meanings (to consumers) of advertising communications, despite the technique being traditionally rarely used in practice and, despite more recent interest, still being demoted to a cursory mention in cross-cultural advertising methodologies (as borne out in the above literature review). This relative paucity is also highlighted by Mick (2004) and a call for the increased utilisation of semiotics is echoed by Harvey & Evans (2001)

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

Research aim and objectives The aim of the research is to understand how consumers in Chinese and Western (US/UK) markets are likely to interpret, evaluate and respond differently to visual information and cultural content in advertising imagery using sex appeal tactics and the implications for multinational beverage companies construction of effective advertising campaigns across these markets, specifically global Western brands attempting to communicate meaningfully with foreign audiences in eastern cultures such as China. Keywords: communication; cross-cultural consumer behaviour; values; sex appeal studies; international advertising;

The primary objectives are therefore: provide a critical review of literature in the field, linking theorised national cultural dimensions and differences to observed tropes regarding sexuality depiction in Chinese and UK sex appeal advertising content. explain, using semiotics and critical textual analysis, recent differing sex appeal tactics employed in the construction of ads for use in China and the West for a given campaign in terms of consumer culture mythologies and ideologies understand the differing nature of respective cultural constructs within and between the two countries and the ways in which they affect meaning-making and interpretation of information and different types of visual brand messages in advertisements, and ultimately; gain insight as to the extent to which contemporary Chinese and Western (such as the use of different types of appeal, executional styles etc.) consumers formulate and exhibit differing attitudes to certain elements of sexualised advertising content and explain any apparent gender differences between Chinese and UK audiences make inferences as to the strategic and practical implications for the construction of ads for the respective markets (e.g. utilisation of a glocalised approach for future campaigns aimed at a given consumer segment/product internationally) for advertising strategists and creatives at global brands such as Coca-Cola.

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

Methods proposed Due to the limitations of quantitative approaches noted above and given that this study seeks to further understanding of why observed differences/similarities exist between the UK and China it is more appropriate for this methodology to privilege a qualitative approach specifically semiotic textual analysis of the imagery and critical analysis in terms of advertisements various cultural contexts. The study will however begin with a critical review of the findings of recent content/survey analyses of sex appeal advertising in China. Following an initial exploratory descriptive content analysis of advertisements drawn from recent issues Chinese version of an international medium a lifestyle magazine (FHM) aimed at an educated, fashionable, cosmopolitan, brand- and trend-conscious consumer class of young urban males in order to bring observations regarding sexualised content tropes (dress types, model gender and ethnicity, explicitness etc.) up to date, semiotic analysis will be performed on a selection of ads exhibiting these tropes. This will follow Bergers (2004) approach of utilising concepts from sociological and ideological (Marxist) analysis and psychoanalytic criticisms and use Barthes (1957) myth model to compare narratives in Chinese national/traditional, popular and consumer culture mythologies and market segment subcultures with those in the UK, again relating observations to cultural factors described by the theoretical literature. As communications involving sexuality are gender-sensitive by nature and sex appeal tactics continue to vary in execution, style and explicitness according to audience gender of such media (Reichert, 2004), a set of advertisements will be examined alongside a corresponding set within a female-oriented medium - the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan as per Jis (2009) study - to explore the nature of any differences in the current use of sex appeal imagery to sell to female consumers. Similarly, a cross-cultural comparison will be between these advertisements and their counterparts in the UK versions of the magazines in order to make inferences as to the particular features of using sex appeal in a Chinese context as opposed to the Western home market (considering for example, possible ongoing influence of Confucian gender bias and conservatism in China versus the influence of Western liberalism imported by globalising forces). Several studies within the field (e.g Albers-Miller & Stafford, 1999) have noted that attitudes and expectations regarding ad content and differential responses to many appeal types also vary according to the nature of the advertised product (an important context in consumer society systems as described by Baudrillard (1996; 1998)). Comparative analysis will also therefore consider/control for product type. As soft drink market is a growing industry sector for both domestic and foreign brands within China, cola drinks provide a good example of a mass market product relevant to many young consumers. Coca-Cola will be used as a case study of a popular Western mass-market global brand for a fixed product type operating within China under increased competitive pressure from local Chinese brands (such as Wahaha) despite its historical dominance.

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

Cokes advertising to the above consumer segment within gendered lifestyle magazines in will be compared with Wahahas advertising within China for a given product type (cola) and media/market segment to make inferences regarding the use of sex appeal advertising by increasingly popular Chinese brands within their home market versus foreign advertisers and re-examine the local vs global preference issue in China. Again, analysis of the case study will be extended cross-culturally to consider any gendered/sexualised content within Cokes UK advertising (a market culturally similar in many respects to its home US market). The effect of product type can be explored further by semiotic comparison of cola advertising content within a given medium (Chinese FHM) with alcoholic beverage (e.g. premium vodka brands). The final stage of the research will be to relate these observed/theorised relationships between consumers culture, attitudes and sex appeal advertising tropes with consumers own accounts and understandings of their responses and meaning-making processes. This will involve constructing two exploratory focus groups, representing a young, educated, white collar consumer class demographic of consumers from China and Britain. Domestic and Chinese international students from a UK business school (MMU) will proxy as reprasentatives of such a group. Future research could utilise the above case study imagery within a quantitative response study perhaps mirroring Lius (2009) use of audience samples split by both gender and nationality and using an online survey of male/female Chinese/UK students to test comparative evaluations of the sexualised content present within the imagery alongside overall brand attitudes and purchasing intentions.

Contribution to knowledge In addition to further contributing to the literature informing the continuing debate around the standardisation/localisation question that concerns both international marketing academics and global brands constructing ad campaigns across Eastern and Western national cultures, this study will specifically add to the limited body of cross-cultural advertising research into the implications that local configurations of culture associated with consumer meaning making within the UK and China have for the nature of adaptation of content related to sex appeal imagery and portrayals of sexuality appropriate for contemporary young audiences within those markets. Further to a present-day analysis and comparison of sex appeal tropes within the UK and China, the research will unlike many previous studies in this area of the field explore the respective cultural constructs and meaning-making processes at work within these two cultures which contribute to local differences in audience interpretation of sex appeal imagery and define the problems of trans-national communication faced by western multinationals advertising to young Chinese consumers when brand messages involve depicting sexualities. In terms of methodology, the study will employ semiotic analysis of ad imagery in a manner not previously utilised in the field: a qualitative comparative textual analysis of sex appeal advertising within present-day UK and China. As this will involve utilising a combination of concepts and models of national culture commonly used in international marketing literature (such as Hofstede, Hall etc.) in a new context, an
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Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

additional outcome will be a contribution to recent discourse challenging the continued reliance by cross-cultural advertising research on models such as Hofstedes and debates regarding future incorporation of elements within a consumer behaviour/communications context from other management and culture frameworks such as GLOBE (see Taylor (2010), House (2010); Akaka & Alden (2010); Terlutter et al. (2006); Okazaki & Mueller (2007); Diehl et al. (2008b) etc.) and a critical review of current methodologies and frameworks within the field.

Sex appeal advertising and consumer meaning-making in China and UK

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