1 Lost in Translation: Consumer Reactions to Advertising in a Foreign Language Emine Mavi and Zeynep Gürhan-Canlı ABSTRACT Is it possible that advertising slogans in foreign languages have an impact on consumers who don t speak that language? For example, when Ford says Feel the difference in English at the end of the ad, do consumers who don t speak English really feel the difference, do they ignore the message, or do they just infer that the axle gear (differential) of the car is better just because it sounds like it? Or when they hear Best snack, do they ignore the message or do they infer that it is a bad product just because the word snack sounds similar to the word fly in their native language? The aim of this research is to contribute to our understanding on how consumers evaluate an advertising message in a foreign language that they do not understand. The results suggest that the liking of an advertising message in an unknown language is driven by the existence of a similar word in native language and the results are moderated by elaboration and involvement. Importantly, our results further demonstrate that consumers make inferences about product attributes in relation to the similarity of the words in their native language. These new findings (e.g., inference making based on foreign language messages) extend previous research on global advertising and branding. Globalization and integration of markets have resulted in an expansion of brands across borders. As companies expand across borders, they have the strategic options of standardization, fully tailored models, or a combination of both in their communication (Boyd et al., 2002, p. 368). In parallel, the information revolution has resulted in an expansion of communication and media, with internet becoming a significant medium. These two factors in action resulted in the emergence of a global consumer, who can make meaning out of foreign brand names, can search and communicate on the internet.
2 A study by Weber (1997) identifies top 3 most influential languages as English, French and Spanish, after considering 6 major factors (number of primary speakers, number of secondary speakers, number and population of countries where used, number of major fields using the language internationally, economic power of countries using the languages, and socio-literary prestige). We also see more standardized messages in media and these messages usually appear in these dominant languages. A content analysis (Harris and Attour, 2003) made on 51 brands in 4 product categories and in 9 countries including 3 in the Middle East revealed an average standardization score of 77.6%, with 45% of the brands in 80-99% range. However, even if we take the most influential language English, the maximum estimate for the number of English speakers in the world is 1.8 billion, including native and secondary language speakers (http://www.ehistling-pub.meotod.de/01_lec06.php 02/06/2004). Therefore, even with the most optimistic estimates, the majority of the world s population does not speak and understand even the most influential language. Consequently, it is important to investigate how these consumers respond to messages in a language they do not understand. There have been some cases in international marketing pointing to the mistakes that marketers made when they used brand names that had undesirable meanings in the local language (e.g., Nova as a car brand, which means it does not go in Spanish). When international companies use messages in languages that are foreign to native speakers and when such exact pronunciation misfortunes are avoided, the assumption is that some consumers will understand these messages and those who do not understand them will not process and infer any meaning at all. However, our research shows that it is not enough to avoid an undesirable exact pronunciation in the local language. Under certain conditions, even mere similarities to words in local language may have implications. Consumers may try to draw a meaning from foreign words that sound similar to another word in their own language.
3 Furthermore, they may make inferences about product attributes. Such mechanisms may be in effect especially under conditions where elaboration is high and when the context is relevant. Currently there are two streams of research analyzing the effects of language on consumers and their preferences on brands. One stream analyzes the phonetic and semantic processing in relation to brand names and words (Jacobson and Waugh, 1987; Klink, 2001; Klink, 2003; Schmitt, Pan and Tavassoli, 1994; Yorkston and Menon, 2004). The other stream of research analyzes syntax and processing of bilinguals (Tavassoli and Han 2001; Zhang et al., 2004; Koslow, Shamdasani and Touchstone, 1994; Luna and Peracchio 2005a, 2005b; Krishna and Ahluwalia, 2008). This research combines both lines of research, analyzing how consumers would process an advertising message which is conveyed in a language unknown to them. What are the possible mechanisms that underlie how consumers process messages in a language unknown to them? First of all, it has been shown that processing fluency increases likeability, even if there is no conscious perception (e.g. Bonnano and Stillings, 1986; Whitlessea, 1993; Reber, Winkielman and Schwarz 1998). Similarly, we expect respondents to evaluate foreign words more positively if there is a similar sounding word in native language. Secondly, Revised Hierarchical Model or RHM (Dufour and Kroll, 1995; Kroll and de Groot, 1997) provides an understanding of how the languages are represented in bilinguals minds. This model builds on previous findings (Durgunoglu and Roediger, 1987; Snodgrass, 1984) suggesting that there are two levels of representation in the bilingual s mind: the lexical (word) level and the conceptual (meaning) level. This representation has three connections: First learned language (L1) to concepts, second learned language (L2) to concepts, and another connection between L1 and L2. In a monolinguals mind, a stimulus is presented in L2, but the L2-concepts relationship is void. Then a mechanism might work that
4 is similar to making meaning out of words that do not have a representation to concepts, possibly through L1. By combining these two streams of research, we hypothesize that when consumers encounter a message in an unknown language, some consumers may try to make sense out of the message presented. Since there is no link between L2 and concept, this meaning can only be achieved through L1. Hence we hypothesize that it may be possible to get a meaning out of a message in an unknown language if the words in the message have a resemblance to other words in L1. However, such connections require effort since semantic processing is the most intense and elaborate processing (Lerman et al. 2002). Therefore, consumers must be motivated to go through such processing. This motivation can stem from many possible reasons. For example, a research study by Luna and Peracchio (2002) shows that the effect of first language (L1) versus a second language (L2) on product evaluations is moderated by need for cognition. By the same token, a relevant construct, high elaboration can also activate the need for semantic processing. Another alternative which might influence processing motivation may be involvement level. We hypothesize that such constructs may predict whether the consumer will make an effort at semantic processing or not. Therefore, elaboration may play an effect in the liking of an advertising message depending on the context. That is, consumers evaluations should depend on whether the target word resembles a positive or negative word in the local language in a given context. We also suggest that elaboration should not lead to any differential effects when foreign words are highly familiar to consumers because familiar words will be processed fluently regardless of elaboration. H 1a : Under high elaboration or involvement, consumers will evaluate an advertisement with a foreign word that sounds unpleasant in L1 in a particular context less favorably than an advertisement with a foreign word that sounds neutral or positive in L1 in that particular context.
5 H 1b : Under low elaboration or involvement, evaluations of advertisements with foreign words will not differ regardless of how they sound in L1. H 1c : Elaboration does not moderate the effect of a foreign word on evaluations of an ad if the foreign word is highly familiar. H 2a : Under high (vs. low) elaboration, evaluations of an advertisement with a foreign word will be more favorable if the foreign word (L2) sounds like a product attribute in L1 regardless of its meaning in L2. H 2b: The effect of a foreign word that sounds like a product attribute in L1 on evaluations of an advertisement will be mediated by the rating on the related product attribute. In testing these hypotheses, we conducted 3 pretests and 2 experimental studies to explain how non speakers of a foreign language process the messages if an advertising message is given in this language. In pretests, we identified similar sounding words, tested their likeability and investigated whether similarity of a word in native language has effects on overall evaluation and if these effects are moderated by elaboration and involvement (H 1a and H 1b ). In Study 1, we test words in different contexts and rule out accessibility as an alternative explanation. In Study 2, we analyze whether familiarity makes any difference in high vs. low elaboration (H 1c ), if consumers make inferences about product attributes if there is a similar sounding word related to a product attribute (H 2a ) and whether these results are driven by the ratings on that specific attribute (H 2b ). The results are generally consistent with expectations.
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