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Adnormal: advertising, local laws and taboos

cultural norms

Typically, advertising must conform to laws and cultural norms. Most advertisements from the 1950’s – 1970’s, like this particular selection for example, wouldn’t be acceptable today due to changing perceptions about various issues such as gender, racial discrimination and public health. The effect of the cultural shift is such that some of these advertisements might even be illegal today.

Nowadays, advertisements regularly do not pass muster and are banned. This can be due to reasons that have to do with nudity, depiction of drug use or likelihood to “cause excessive fear and distress”, amongst others. Even when local laws are clear, bans can often be dependent on context and the interpretation of the offending advertisements. Thus, besides abiding with local regulations, advertisers need to be sensitive to ever-shifting cultural sensibilities.

To make matters more complex, cultural norms and sensibilities don’t just vary across time. They vary across different societies as well. This might seem obvious when we think about it, but it is easy to forget that what is acceptable in one society may not be in another. A good example is that of deodorant brands that launched a set of advertisements based on flirting  in India last year, which were considered “indecent, vulgar and suggestive” by the local authorities.  Even without the use of official bans, content may be regulated through self-censorship by broadcasters, which is the case in the United States, where many condom ads cannot be shown despite containing no nudity due to the fear of backlash.

There are some well-known facts about restrictions on advertising globally. Alcohol and tobacco advertisements, for example, are banned or restricted in many countries. There are also some prominent hot button issues that advertisements would do well to avoid being associated with, such sexism and racism.

However, cultural norms and local laws can be fairly obscure and apply to things you might not expect. In Lithuania, language is a potential problem as linguists are employed by the Lithuanian Language Committee to perform random checks on aired content to look for linguistic errors.  Broadcasters must remove any offending content found or face fines, making it necessary to ensure that voice-overs have proper accentuation. Language is also an issue in France, where it is required by law that everything on an advertisement must be translated into French, so even a tagline such as Nike’s "Just Do It" must appear with a French ‘subtitle’. This is due to a law that was passed at the end of the 1990's by then Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, who wanted to promote and preserve the use of the French language.

Incidentally, a Nike advertisement was banned in China in 2004 for completely different reasons. The ad, which featured US basketball star LeBron James in battle with a cartoon kung fu master, was banned for misusing Chinese “cultural symbols” and for failing to “uphold national dignity” and respect Chinese culture.

So perhaps a good set of advice would be: don’t just do it; research local laws and sensibilities before proceeding with an ad campaign, just in case it ends up pushing the wrong buttons.

By Moses Lemuel

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