Culture Shocks: Let’s Talk About…Sex? Approaching Cultural Taboos Head-On

Brands face many hurdles when launching a global campaign, from simply reaching a target market to figuring out what kind of methods best engage individual consumers. Not to mention staying competitive in an environment which is constantly evolving and requires continuous renewal to maintain relevancy. Taking all of those factors into account, what is a marketer to do when faced with the additional challenge of building a campaign for a product that is culturally sensitive?

Culturally imposed taboos are so strong that they have a powerful effect on how a consumer chooses to spend. Take, for example, condom brands. While condoms are essential to public health, the challenge of getting a consumer to buy them starts with the most important factor: trust in the product. A proposed ban in Russia on several types of medical products from foreign countries, including contraceptives, had Russians sarcastically tweeting about the sorry quality of locally made condoms. While overcoming trust issues is one problem, just getting consumers to talk on Twitter is an entirely different story.

cultural taboos- Russian Twitter about condoms

In Japan, where the notion of creating advertisements for condoms faces some powerful cultural taboos, one manufacturer opted to reach out to consumers through humour. Cleveland-based ad agency Marcus Thomas came up with three 15-second spots for Okamoto that emphasise the significance of condoms, while adding some levity to the subject in order to appeal to Japanese consumers. In Singapore, condom manufacturer Durex went one step further by taking out a near full-page ad in a national newspaper, apologising for a product that has been so effective as to cause the country’s birth rate to drop significantly. The Durex campaign was successful in two ways. Firstly, by reestablishing their presence in a campaign that went viral on social media. And secondly, by using the whimsical idea of ‘saving face’, a cultural concept that many Singaporeans can relate to.

So how else can brands overcome cultural taboos? Global marketers can examine the creativity and effectiveness of previous campaigns and make sure a potential ad isn’t breaching any local laws. Another way is to get consumers to look directly at the benefits of a product. An article in The Guardian explained how major brand advertising campaigns, such as an MTV campaign for HIV awareness among teenagers and a campaign by Kotex for reusable menstrual pads in Uganda, managed to tackle taboos head-on in order to engage an audience. The Wharton School of Business adds to that argument, saying that online engagement with a product, whether it’s a digestive aid, condom, lice treatment, or adult diaper, helps to raise people’s awareness over the same issues. This, in turn, reduces embarrassment or shyness.

From whimsical ads to online engagement, the information age is arguably the era best suited for brands to tackle a cultural taboo. Not only does the internet provide a platform for people to discuss topics that they may not talk about in the open, it also provides a level of anonymity. Products can be ordered and delivered discreetly to one’s doorstep without anyone else being any the wiser. Brands can take solace in the fact that, while reaching out and getting an audience to engage is still challenging, the internet has made the actual sale much easier. If brands can come up with strategies that get those consumers to overcome cultural taboos and influence them to make an online purchase, then half the work is already done.

Need help navigating a minefield of international cultural taboos? Speak with our Language and Culture Account Managers about cultural consultation, transcreation and localisation services.

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