MESSAGES OF INDIVIDUALISM
IN FRENCH, SPANISH, AND AMERICAN
Ronald E. Taylor
University of Tennessee
Please address correspondence to:
Department of Advertising
476 Communications Building
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-0343
PH: (423) 974-3048
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Individualism is a central value in French, Spanish, and American cultures.
However, what it
means to be an individual and how this is expressed varies among cultures. This
study explores the
ways that television advertising reflects individualism in French, Spanish, and
American cultures and
identifies six main advertising message strategies across the three cultures.
Individualism is widely accepted as one of the core values in American culture
(Lodge 1975; Hofstede 1991; Triandis 1989). Lodge defines it as the belief that
"fulfillment lies in an essentially lonely struggle in what amounts to a
wilderness where the fit survive -- and where, if you do not survive, you are
somehow unfit" (p. 10). Like all values, individualism is thought to be
pervasive and reflected in society's institutions as well as in its cultural
products such as novels, films, television programs, popular music, and
advertising. Yet, the pervasive, taken-for-granted nature of values can make
them nearly invisible to the members of a given culture.
What constitutes "individualism" varies from culture to culture. As O'Sullivan
et al (1994) note, "Individualism is rarely discussed in studies of
communication, but its assumptions are implicit in a great variety of theorizing
on the subject." The following study explicates the ways in which messages of
individualism appear in French, Spanish, and American television advertising.
The study begins with an overview of individualism in a historical context and
proceeds to an interpretive analysis of advertising content. This study is not
intended to be a census of all the ways in which advertisers make use of
individualism nor to provide an exact count of the instances of individualism.
Rather it is intended to explore, first of all, the depth and the variation of
the portrayal of individualism as an ingrained value, to bring its use to a
conscious level, and to make available for discussion the taken-for-granted
nature of individualism that is interwoven with advertising messages.
An Overview of Individualism
This overview places individualism in a historical context and summarizes the
work of major social scientists who have studied individualism as a cultural
Individualism In Historical Context. During medieval times the concept of
individualism had no place in the fixed social hierarchy. Through the 15th
century, medieval social philosophy was wholly dominated by St. Augustine's
explanation that God had assigned each person a fixed place in the community
(Nisbet 1973). Each person was equated with his place in this hierarchy, and any
separation from the social roles assigned by God, society, and family was
unthinkable (Baumeister 1987).
The early modern era (16th to 18th century) marked increased social mobility
and the cessation of the fixed social hierarchy. The blacksmith's son, for
example, was no longer tied to the moral duty to become a blacksmith himself
(MacIntyre 1981). Conceptions of individuality began to be articulated, and the
basic unit in society began to shift from the community to the individual. For
the first time it was conceivable that the individual's interests could be in
conflict with those of society.
John Locke became England's most prominent spokesman for the religious,
political, and economic freedoms of man. According to Locke, all men were
inherently good, were endowed with inalienable rights by god, and were of equal
privilege in the pursuit of rank. Each man shaped his own destiny through
Locke's political philosophy evolved differently in various countries. In
England, Locke's ideas were augmented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill,
and today Britons care far less than Americans about competition than the
productive effort to serve the country's needs as defined by government (Lodge).
In France, Locke's notions of individualism that emerged in the 17th century
were overtaken by Rousseau's 18th century idea of the General Will, which he
defined as the collection of the individual wills of the people.
Locke's ideas came to greater fruition in the United States during the fight
for independence. The Declaration of Independence states, for example,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that
these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Through the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment, the U.S. Constitution
provides federal and state assurances that individuals will be protected against
unjust acts of government that would deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property without due process of law.
The French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, coined the word
"individualism" in De la Democratie en Amerique, which described his experiences
and observations of the American people of the 1830s (Miller). According to de
Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen
to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the
family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly
leaves the greater society to look after itself.
Tocqueville further wrote that as individualism grows
there are more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful enough
to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough
understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything
hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of
themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their
(Bellah, p. 37).
In Spain Miguel de Cervantes introduced in 1605 one of the premises of
individualism in Don Quixote. A central idea in Cervantes' book is that "each
man is the child of his deeds," which privileges virtue over birth. This was in
direct opposition to the belief among the Spanish aristocracy that inherited
nobility determined one's identity (Mariscal 1991, p. 154). Because Cervantes
work was highly controversial, it was not until the 19th century that it gained
a large measure of acceptance in Spain.
How Social Scientists See Individualism. The polar opposite of individualism is
collectivism, a view that holds that the unit of survival lies in the group, not
in the individual. The relative presence of individualism and collectivism
within various cultures has been discussed by many researchers across
disciplines that study relationships. Social psychologist Harry Triandis (1985)
suggests that individualism/collectivism is perhaps the most important dimension
of cultural differences in social behavior across the diverse cultures of the
The Dutch social scientist, Geert Hofstede, has researched the many ways in
which individualism and collectivism affect family life, occupations, education,
and relationships in the workplace. For example, he notes that in most
collectivist societies the family consists of many people living closely
together -- not just the parents and other children, but grandparents, uncles,
aunts, and servants. This "extended family" is the only secure protection one
has against the hardships of life. One is loyal to this group over a lifetime,
and breaking this loyalty is one of the most severe offenses a person can
While single parent families are commonplace, individualist families typically
consist of two parents, the child, and possibly other children, but other
relatives live elsewhere and are not seen often. This "nuclear family" teaches
the child to be independent, and children are expected to leave the parental
home as soon as they can stand on their own feet. In these societies, once
children are independent, they reduce their relationships with the parents.
Hofstede also distinguished among cultures on the basis of communication from
"high-context" to "low-context," a dimension originally described by
anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1976). High-context communication is typical of
collectivist cultures and requires little information to be spoken or written
because most of the message is either in the physical environment or within the
person. Very little is in the coded, explicit part of the message. In contrast,
individualist cultures typically use low-context communication, which gives most
of the information explicitly. The United States and Japan are often cited as
examples of low-context and high-context, respectively. American contracts, for
example, are typically lengthy with details precisely described, while Japanese
contracts are very short and inexplicit. The Japanese also place more confidence
in verbal agreements than in legal contracts, while Americans place higher
confidence in legal contracts than verbal agreements.
These differences in family, communication, education, occupations, and the
workplace are summarized in Table 1, and a more detailed list of characteristics
of individualist cultures is provided in Appendix A.
Hofstede's Key Differences Between
Collectivist and Individualist Societies
People are born into extended families or other ingroups which continue to
protect them in exchange for loyalty.
Everyone grows up to look after him/herself and his/her immediate (nuclear)
Identity is based in the social network to which one belongs.
Identity is based in the individual.
Children learn to think in terms of 'we.'
Children learn to think in terms of 'I.'
Harmony should always be maintained and direct confrontations avoided.
Speaking one's mind is a characteristic of an honest person.
Trespassing [infractions of rules] leads to shame and loss of face for self and
Trespassing [infractions of rules] leads to guilt and loss of self-respect.
Purpose of education is learning how to do.
Purpose of education is learning how to learn.
Diplomas provide entry to higher status groups.
Diplomas increase economic worth and/or self-respect.
Employer--employee relationship is perceived in moral terms, like a family link.
Employer -- employee relationship is a contract supposed to be based on mutual
Hiring and promotion decisions take employees' ingroup into account.
Hiring and promotion decisions are supposed to be based on skills and rules
Management is management of groups.
Management is management of individuals.
Relationship prevails over task.
Task prevails over relationship.
Hofstede 1991, p. 67.
Hofstede notes that affluent countries are statistically very likely to favor
individualism over collectivism because as the wealth increases in a country,
people have resources that allow personal expression.
The storyteller in the village market is replaced by TV sets, first one per
village, but soon more. In wealthy Western family homes every family member
have his or her own TV set. The caravan through the desert is replaced by a
number of buses, and these by a larger number of motor cars, until each
family member drives a different car. The village hut in which the entire
lives and sleeps together is replaced by a house with a number of private
Collective life is replaced by individual life (p. 76).
The Dutch social scientist, Fons Trompenaars (1993), observes that within
collectivist societies decision-making uses sustained efforts to achieve
consensus. Collectivist societies intuitively refrain from voting because this
shows disrespect to the individuals who are against the majority decision. He
sees consensus seeking as a time-consuming approach but one that usually allows
the decision to be implemented smoothly and efficiently.
Individualistic societies usually handle dissention by a majority vote -- a
practice that leads to a quick decision that is often difficult to implement.
Companies sometimes come to realize that the organization has conspired to
defeat decisions that managers never liked or agreed to.
Advertising and Culture
As a cultural product, advertising plays different roles within different
cultures, according to the expectations that the culture has for it. Hall and
Hall (1990), for example, have noted that the role of advertising in the United
States is to hype the product, the role of advertising in Germany is to provide
information about the product, and the role of advertising in France is to evoke
a response from the viewer. In addition, the amount of money spent on
advertising, what is advertised, and where advertising appears is subject to the
regulatory mechanisms within each culture. The United States is the worldwide
leader in advertising expenditures, accounting for more than half of worldwide
expenditures. In 1992 advertisers spent $129.2 billion on advertising and 23%
of all advertising dollars were allocated to television. Television is
available in 98% of homes.
In France advertisers spent $11.6 billion on advertising and 28% of all
advertising dollars were spent in television. Television is available in 97% of
French homes. In Spain advertisers spent $6 billion on advertising and 68% of
total advertising expenditures were allocated to television. Television is
available in 99% of Spanish homes (Leo Burnett Co. 1994).
Advertising and The Study of Cultural Values. While many advertising studies
have provided a content analysis of ads, very few have specifically addressed
cultural values. More popular research topics have been the portrayal of gender
roles and the use of different advertising appeals across cultures. A review of
the leading advertising and marketing journals from 1980-1993 produced only 14
content analysis studies that enumerated values either cross culturally or
within one culture. Eleven of the studies addressed multiple values; two focused
on "inner-directedness versus other-directedness" which is similar but not
identical to individualism/collectivism (Zinkhan and Shermohamad 1986; Zinkhan,
Hong, and Lawson 1990); and one focused on "time" as a cultural value (Gross and
Sheth 1989). The number of values coded in the 11 multiple-value studies ranged
from as many as 42 (Pollay 1983) to as few as four (Frith and Wesson 1991),
which demonstrates the differing ways that advertising research has
conceptualized and measured the core American values in advertising.
Advertising is a cultural product intended to persuade an audience. Advertising
messages are intended to influence behavior by creating a desire for a product
that will ultimately lead to purchase behavior, or by influencing public opinion
to generate votes for a political candidate. In other instances, advertising is
used to create favorable attitudes toward companies to enhance their image,
which ultimately may increase sales.
In order for these persuasive messages to be effective, advertisers "appeal" to
human needs such as security, love, attractiveness, status, convenience, and
self-fulfillment. Textbooks of creative advertising list as many as 24 appeal
strategies plus 11 different kinds of emotional appeals including excitement,
fear, pleasure, poignancy, and pride (Moriarty 1991). These appeals are closely
linked to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which proceeds from lower to higher as
follows: physiological, safety and security, belongingness, esteem, and
self-actualization (Maslow 1970). While American advertising uses appeals that
are clearly related to these needs, Hofstede notes that Maslow's hierarchy
reflects Western thinking. The goal of self-actualization or realizing the
creative potential within the individual "can only be the supreme motivation in
an individualistic society" (p. 73). In a collectivist culture, the interest of
the group will be actualized, and the accomplishment of this goal may require
self-effacement from many members.
One of the ways that messages of individualism are carried to consumers is
through the advertising practice of writing to the individual. Standard American
textbooks frequently teach writers to imagine they are writing to just one
person. Nelson (1989) recommends the following:
Although what you write is reproduced for multiple readership, write as if
for a single reader. Attempt to maintain through mass communication the
of a salesman-to-buyer relationship. Your writing should be informal,
conversational, and where appropriate, intimate. A logical way of
one-reader feel in copy is by writing in second person. The word you is
deservedly commonplace in advertising copy (p. 152).
Advertising giant David Ogilvy also instructs copywriters to address the
consumer as an individual. Ogilvy says
When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing each of
them a letter on behalf of your client. One human being to another; second
person singular (1985, p. 80).
Not only are advertising appeals meaningful to members of a culture because
they tap into basic needs, but because the creative execution of the ads is able
to place the appeal within a context that reflects the culture. An ad for a
cosmetic product targeted toward women may appeal to the need for
attractiveness, but the background cues such as the presence of admiring men
provide rich cultural material that may deliver powerful messages of
individualism and other core cultural values. These cues are meaningful when
considering that the way men and women interact and form relationships differs
in collectivist and individualist cultures. For example, people in Western
cultures choose friends or mates based on attraction, personality, and personal
preferences unlike some collectivist cultures that arrange marriages between
people based on other needs.
Although the incidental, background details within an ad may seem
insignificant, "a well-crafted message, presented against a backdrop of props
that 'make sense' and reinforce the intended meaning, can convey a powerful and
persuasive image...The impact of the best-intentioned message may be eroded if
viewers' expectations regarding the appropriate context are violated" (Solomon
and Greenberg 1993, p. 11).
Individualism in France, the United States, and Spain. In a study of
individualism in the workplace in 40 countries Hofstede (1984) placed the United
States, France, and Spain in the upper half. The United States ranked at the
top of the list with an individualism score of 91, France ranked 11th with a
score of 71, and Spain ranked 20th with a score of 51. At the bottom of the
list were Pakistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. While individualism is usually
associated with low context cultures such as the United States, France is a
culture that is high in individualism and is also high context.
Sample Commercials. A total of 211 commercials--68 French, 62 Spanish, and 81
American--were analyzed for messages of individualism. The French and Spanish
commercials were obtained from London International Advertising Awards (1993).
The commercials are not necessarily award-winning. However, since the
commercials were submitted by the agencies themselves, they are thought to
represent the best creative work of French and Spanish agencies. Commercial
length ranged from ten to sixty seconds and the majority of commercials were
thirty seconds. The 81 American commercials analyzed for this study appeared on
the tapes Advertising Age, The Best TV Commercials of 1991 and Advertising
Age's Best TV Commercials of 1992.
Unit of Analysis. "Main message element" was selected as the unit of analysis.
Main message element was defined as the "intended overall impression to be
gained from viewing the commercial." It was deduced by asking after viewing the
commercial "What will happen if I buy and use the advertised product?"
Code Development. Using Hofstede's key differences in collectivist and
individualist societies displayed in Table 1, an initial set of codes was
developed to answer the question "What will happen if I buy and use the
product?" Possible answers included, among many others: I can take better
care of myself or my family, I will become more "me," my children will become
more independent, I will learn how to learn, I will gain self-respect, I will
win a promotion or increase my skill level, I will be better or more efficient
at accomplishing my tasks, I will be more attractive, I will be healthier. In
addition, informal interviews were conducted among French and Spanish natives
and they were asked how individualism might be expressed in their culture.
Responses included, among others, automobile driving habits, speech patterns,
choice of reading material, and leisure activities. Viewing a sample of
commercials with the informants added the message elements of "I will have a
moment of pleasure, I will gain knowledge, I will enjoy life, I will be
Analytical Framework. Following the path of analytic induction, we asked two
questions for each commercial: (1) Does the commercial carry a message of
individualism?, and, if so, (2) What is the message of individualism?
Analytical induction (Glaser and Strauss 1967) involves viewing the commercials
for message elements, developing a working scheme after examination, then
modifying and refining the scheme on the basis of subsequent cases (Goetz and
LeCompte 1984). Commercials that do not fit the initial scheme are sought to
expand, adapt, or restrict the original set of message elements.
The set of commercials was viewed numerous times in order to refine the message
elements. Tentative codes were developed, and later dismissed or subsumed under
other codes. For example, the healthy and attractive codes were merged; and
separate codings for different types of self-esteem were merged. The two coders
agreed upon the presence/absence of individualism in all messages analyzed.
Each commercial was coded into only one main message element. After repeated
viewings, 15 main message elements were identified:
(1) Take better care of myself/my family
(2) Become more "me"
(3) Gain self-respect
(4) Learn how to learn
(5) Make children more independent
(6) Win a promotion or increase skill level
(7) Work more efficiently
(8) Save money
(9) Become more attractive/healthier
(11)Improve mental skills
(12)Have a moment of pleasure
(13)Have fun/enjoy life/
(13)Become seductive/be seduced/be romantic
(15)Perform at a certain, though not necessarily optimal, level
Stages of the Analytical Process
Stage 1. Using literature review and native informants, develop a tentative
list of message elements of individualism. Interview French and Spanish native
informants regarding expressions of individualism within their respective
cultures. View a sample of commercials with native informants. Refine list of
message elements. 15 such elements were identified.
Stage 2. Analyze each commercial for a dominant message element of
individualism by asking "What will happen if I buy and use the product?" Of the
211 commercials, 175 contained messages of individualism.
Stage 3. Compute the percentage of messages of individualism within each
culture and note the variations.
Stage 4. Collapse the message elements into main message strategies of
individualism. Six main message strategies were identified. Note the variation
across cultures by main message strategy.
Stage 5. Assign the 175 commercials to product categories, making the
categories as equitable as possible across cultures. Analyze the relationship
between message strategy and product category.
Stage 6. Further assign the 175 commercials to product categories by culture.
Analyze the relationship between message strategy and product category across
Commercials that demonstrated how a product worked, its function, or its
applications without reference to individuals were not coded as having messages
of individualism. For example, a French commercial that personified Bacardi Rum
and Coca-Cola in a relationship but showed no people in the ad was coded as
having no message of individualism. The complete analytical process is shown in
Observation 1: Advertising promotes the value of individualism across cultures.
Table 2 shows the percentage of commercials for each culture that carried
individualism. Surprisingly, the rank order of individualism is exactly the
Percent Composition of Messages of Individualism
# Commercials Analyzed
Number (and %) with message
Hofstede's finding regarding the level of individualism in each country. That
is, Spanish television advertising carried a higher percentage of messages of
individualism that either France or the United States, and France ranked above
the United States in this study.
The fifteen message elements were collapsed into six better-defined main
message strategies, which produced a typology of "The Efficient Individual,"
"The Sensual Individual," "The Attractive/Healthy Individual," , "The Esteemed
Individual, "The Individual Performant(e)", and "The Intellectual Individual."
The make-up of these message strategies and examples in each culture are
Observation 2. Across the three cultures advertising uses six main messages of
individualism: The Efficient Individual, the Sensual Individual, the Attractive
Individual, the Esteemed Individual, the Performant(e) Individual, and the
Intellectual Individual. The type of individualism varies considerably across
Table 3 shows the distribution of type of individualism by country. In France
there is almost equal appeal to messages of efficiency and sensuality. Being
attractive and healthy is the main appeal to individualism in Spain, and in the
United States appeals to efficiency clearly dominate.
Distribution of Main Message Of Individualism by Country
Type of Individualism
The Efficient Individual. The Efficient Individual is made up of the message
elements of "children more independent," "learn how to learn," "win a promotion
or increase skill level," "save money," and "become more efficient." In an
individualist society, tasks and task completion prevail over relationships.
Certain products promise to make people more efficient in their work and
household tasks, or to "save" time or money. More than 40 percent of the
American messages of individualism were directed to being efficient and 39
percent of the French messages of individualism were so directed. Only 18
percent of the Spanish messages of individualism were directed to efficiency.
In an American commercial for Nissan Altima, a man places 10 wine glasses
stacked in a pyramid on the hood of the automobile. The car is started and the
speedometer reaches 100 mph. Two voice-overs explain that while the viewer may
have seen a demonstration like this one for a luxury car, this demonstration is
for a $13,000 car. The commercial concludes with "It's time to expect more from
A French commercial for Alfapac garbage bags combines efficiency with humor.
We see an elegantly-dressed woman in a black evening dress and elbow-length
black gloves. She draws closed the ties on the garbage bag as a female
voice-over notes that the Alfapac new line of plastic bags with sliding straps
is so resistant, so light, and so practical that everyone will want to snatch
it. She walks down steps outside her house to the sidewalk and two men on a
motorcycle race by and snatch the bag from her hands. She half-heartedly yells,
"Thief!" as the two ride away. The two thieves open the bag only to discover
trash and toss it upon a pile of other Alfapac bags, supposedly filled with
garbage. The voice-over tells us that the new bag is "more bag" than "trash."
A Spanish commercial takes advantage of stereotypes about crime and
individuality in the United States to show three people being photographed front
and side at a police station. The voice-over says:
Salvatore Borcellino robbed 36 banks in 14 states. Little Jack
O'Brien hit the Pittsburgh mail train nine times. Mildred Peterson made
off with three pizzas, only paid for two of them. But now anybody can get
three pizzas and only pay for two, and it's legal.
Three pizzas on a table comprise the ending shot.
The high percentage of efficiency messages directed to American and French
consumers seems to indicate that advertisers in these two cultures operate with
a view of individualism that is different from the view of Spanish advertisers.
The Sensual Individual. The Sensual Individual is made up of the message
elements of "have a moment of pleasure," "have fun/enjoy life," and "become
seductive/romantic." Sensuality plays a bigger role in French advertising than
it does in either Spanish or American advertising; however, it is present in all
three cultures. Thirty-eight percent of the messages of individualism in French
commercials were directed to the Sensual Individual. In the United States the
Sensual Individual accounted for 20 percent of the messages of individualism,
and in Spain it comprised 16 percent of the messages of individualism.
A French commercial for St. Yorre mineral water shows individuals engaged in a
variety of physical activities such as running, playing tennis, and bicycling.
A voice-over tells us that the mineral water craves for us, it thirsts for our
strength, our energy, and our taste.
An American commercial for Blossom Hill wine demonstrates through a series of
visuals and tongue-in-cheek voiceovers that wine is preferable to flowers as a
gift for men to give to women. At the commercial's closing, wine is poured, a
woman caresses her cheek with glass of wine, and thinks of the man who gave her
A Spanish commercial for Limon Kas soft drinks shows an attractive, young man
and woman on a stage as they sing "The night is young...young with Lemon
Kas...with Lemon Kas, young is the night. The night is young with Kas."
Viewers see a series of night scenes including bright city lights, people
dancing, and other people out on the street. The overall impression is the
pleasure within the sophisticated night life of the city.
Sensuality and romanticism are integral parts of French culture and are often
grouped under the advertising strategy of la s duction, (Taylor, Hoy and Haley,
forthcoming), which translates as "enticing, charming, alluring." It represents
the idea that products can seduce consumers. In American and Spanish
advertising, sensuality is more commonly expressed along the lines of "moment of
pleasurable taste," or "having fun."
The Attractive/Healthy Individual. The attractive/healthy individual message
strategy is made up of the messages of elements of "become more attractive," and
"become healthier." This was the most often used strategy in the sample of
Spanish commercials. Spanish advertisers' appeals to the Attractive/Healthy
Individual accounted for 27 percent of the messages of individualism.
In the United States, appeals to the Attractive/Healthy Individual accounted for
11 percent of the messages and in France such appeals accounted for only 01
percent of the messages.
In a Spanish commercial for Carbonel Virgin Olive Oil, a male voice-over tells
the viewer while images of the Virgin Mary appear on screen:
The blessed virgin of perpetual help sheltered us from the winds
The blessed virgin of the sorrows brought us rain
The blessed virgin of hope kept the frost away
The blessed virgin of the rosary watched over the harvest
The blessed virgin of the wayside protected the farmers
Carbonel Virgin Olive Oil protects your health.
A French commercial for Lactel milk is set around the breakfast table with
father, mother, a son, and two daughters. As the children reject their father's
explanation that boys are born in cabbage patches and girls in rose gardens, a
voice-over tells us that because Lactel milk contains vitamins it is ideal for
growth and development.
In an American commercial for Verilux bifocals the branded no-line bifocals are
presented as the "perfect disguise" for "those who refuse to be seen in
The Esteemed Individual. The esteemed individual is one who feels better about
himself/herself psychologically or emotionally because of the use of certain
products. The Esteemed Individual strategy is made up of the elements of
"become more me," and "gain self-respect." This message of individualism
accounted for 16 percent of American messages of individualism, six percent of
Spanish messages, and four percent of French messages.
An American McDonald's commercial titled "Perfect Season," features scenes of
elementary school-age children participating in football games. Their fathers
are coaches and two fathers form a goal post. The commercial includes this
voiceover: "So McDonald's would like to salute the players, the coaches, and
the families who helped to make this season the perfect season." A player asks:
"Can we go to McDonald's now, Coach?" The coach replies, " After the game,
Lenny. It's only half time. Go sit down."
In a French commercial for Scottex bathroom tissue, a young boy is riding his
bicycle in the country when he discovers an abandoned baby bird. He takes the
bird home, and creates a nest of tissue in a shoebox. The tagline tells the
viewer the product is "soft like you."
In a Spanish commercial for Red Cross volunteers, a crowd of people is walking
away from the viewers so that we see only their backs. A voice-over asks, "How
many people have it in them to help others without receiving something in
return?" As one man turns as though he volunteers, the words "Red Cross
Volunteers.3006565. Call Us" is superimposed on the screen.
Self-esteem through product purchase and use is not a heavily used appeal in
any of the three cultures. However, it is much more associated with American
advertising than with either French or Spanish advertising.
The Performant(e) Individual. The Performant(e) Individual strategy is made
up of the messages elements of "it works" or "it works wells." The efficiency
message of "it works better than something else" or "it works quicker" is not a
part of this message strategy. This strategy eschews comparisons that might be
made in the messages of individual efficiency. This message strategy reflects
the self-effacing characteristics of individuals. It differs from the Esteemed
Individual strategy in that the individual does not feel better for having
something that works or performs. The message elements and the strategy category
came from suggestions made by our French and Spanish native informants about how
individualism is expressed in those cultures.
This strategy accounts for 16 percent of French messages of individualism,
eight percent of American messages, and five percent of Spanish commercials.
In a French commercial for Stihl chainsaws, we see a man on vacation in a beach
house. The view out his window is partially blocked by an overhanging tree
limb. He walks out of the screen and we hear the sound of a chain saw starting
and running. The man returns to sit in his chair. An exterior shot shows us
his beach house is elevated by stilts and we see his house fall to the beach
level, giving him an unobstructed view of the ocean. The overall impression we
gain is that the product works for whatever purpose we may have.
In a Spanish commercial for Iber Caja bank, a young literature teacher, dressed
in black leather jacket and short skirt waits for someone in the street. She
dismisses a man who tries to pick her up. The another man, whom she is
presumably waiting for, comes by and they walk together. The voice-over tells
us, "At Iber Caja we know that with time you can attain everything you aim for.
That's why we help you from the very beginning. Iber Caja. Your future is also
In an American commercial for American National Bank visuals show a man who
owns a business of selling buttons. He tells the viewer how important his
business is for paying for his and his workers' food, clothes, houses, and their
children's education. A voice-over asks, "It's your life's work. Does your
bank understand that?"
This appeal to individualism would appear to run counter to classic American
advertising strategies such as unique selling proposition as practiced by Rosser
Reeves, preemption as advocated by Claude Hopkins, and brand personality and
differentiation as suggested by David Ogilvy. Its use indicates that
individuals can be self-effacing, even in highly individualistic cultures.
The Intellectual Individual. The Intellectual Individual is made up of the
message elements of "gain knowledge" and "improve mental skills." It accounts
for 21 percent of Spanish messages of individualism, only two percent of
American messages, and only one percent of French messages.
A Spanish commercial for a fairy tale book associates the Big Bad Wolf with
Saddam Hussein, the Little Toy Soldier with Gen. Schwartzkoff, the Happy Prince
with Prince Charles, and Little Red Riding Hood with Margaret Thatcher. A
voice-over asks, "If these are the tales your children are dreaming about,
aren't they missing something very important. Let them discover the Universal
Tales of Orbis--the real tales."
A French commercial uses a futuristic urban setting for a Sega video game. A
villainous man by-passes building security to enter into a video game. He
becomes part of the game and is destroyed. We learn that he is really a robot.
The closing line challenges us to play the game that has a "stronger mind than
An American commercial for Time magazine promotes an issue of the magazine
that features a cover story on abortion. The final voice-over states, " Why Roe
versus Wade is moot. If it's important to you, you'll find it in Time."
The variation of the findings in this category are probably more a reflection
of regulation and media choices than they are true expressions of differences in
individualism in the three cultures. The French are among the most prolific
book buyers and readers in the world; however, because books can not be
advertised on television, the French messages directed to the Intellectual
Individual are to be found in media other than television.
Observation 3: Messages of individualism reflect cultural patterns more so than
product categories. All commercials were classified into six product
categories: food/beverage (29%), business/financial/media (17%), household
(07%), personal care (11%), automobile/transportation (09%), and other (27%).
Examples of products classified as "other" included a lottery, a public relief
agency, and department stores. An attempt was made to aggregate products into
comparable categories across cultures, and the product category percent
composition for any of the three cultures is no more than six percentage points
from the percent composition for the total sample. However, it should be noted
that regulation does affect the analysis. For example, of the 38 commercials
classified in the business/financial/media category, 10 are French commercials,
14 are American commercials, and 14 are Spanish commercials. However, France
does not permit the advertising of books or movies on television whereas Spanish
and American television systems do. Four of the Spanish commercials in this
category were for media products that could not be advertised on television in
France. The product category composition for French commercials is comparable
to what would be broadcast in France (cp. to Zandpour, Chang and Catalano 1992),
and the composition for American commercials is comparable to the top 25 network
television advertisers for 1994 (Television Bureau of Advertising, 1994). Table
4 shows the product category composition across the three cultures.
Product Category Composition Across Three Cultures
When message of individualism is cross-tabbed with product category without
regard to culture, several relationships can be noted. Food and beverages most
often use appeals to the Sensual Individual; both the business/media/financial
category and the household products category most often use appeals directed to
the Efficient Individual; personal care products appeal almost equally to the
Sensual Individual and the Attractive/Healthy Individual; automobiles and
transporation appeal most often to the Efficient Individual. However, only two
of these patterns are true for all three cultures individually.
Table 5 shows the distribution of main message of individualism across product
category for the three combined cultures. First, messages of efficiency dominate
the household products category in all three cultures. Second, food and beverage
commercials are designed to appeal to individual sensuality.
One pattern holds true for two of the three cultures. In both the United
States and France appeals to The Efficient Individual are most often associated
with business and financial institutions. Beyond these three patterns, there is
Main Message of Individualism Across Product Category
In Percentages (N=165)
Type of Individualism
* Percent of Total
** Row Percent (Product Category)
Discussion and Implications
Limitations. The results of this study are based on samples drawn from
exemplars of television advertising in French, Spanish, and American cultures.
Exemplars are appropriate for a study whose purpose is to identify and develop
cultural categories. Even though the product category compositions for the
French commercials and the American commercials are comparable to other known
and studied samples, this does not necessarily mean that the main message
strategies would appear in the same distribution patterns reported here. This
study uses only television commercials; if other media had been included, then
additional message strategies might have been identified. Given the
restrictions placed on advertising in various cultures, a sampling of
advertisements from all available media is necessary to develop a complete
typology of individualism in a particular culture. By studying what appears in
advertising this study makes no claim about how individualism manifests itself
in other institutions within culture. Those types of individualism may be
slightly different from the kinds reported here.
Contributions of this study. This study contributes to the body of knowledge
about advertising in three ways: method, findings, and suggested avenues for
Method. This study introduces the concept of individualism into the
advertising literature and demonstrates an alternative to standard content
analyses for examining advertising and drawing comparisons across cultures.
Content analyses have been the predominant mode for American academic
investigations of advertising in other cultures. One fault with content
analysis studies is that they have imposed American-generated concepts to
categorize and characterize other cultures' advertising. By following the
approach of analytical induction, this study avoids the weakness of content
analysis and allows concepts relevant to each of three cultures to emerge and be
used in the analysis.
Implications of findings. The issue of whether to adopt a standardized product
line and a standardized communications program for all cultures or to adopt
individual strategies for each culture is a basic decision every management team
must make within the multinational corporation.
Generally, those managers who advocate a standardized approach believe that
people of diverse cultures share basic needs and motivations that can be reached
universally through a single approach. Standardized strategies also offer unity
of brand image and economy of advertising development. On the other hand, some
managers argue that even if products are not culturally-bound, the advertising
for such products typically is.
Ironically, advice from the academic research community is often diametrically
opposed. Some researchers have suggested that food and fashion products will
best lend themselves to standardized approaches (Domzal and Kernan 1993); other
researchers have suggested that food is the product least amenable to
standardization (Moriarty and Duncan 1990), while still others have suggested
that the difference may lie between durables and nondurables (Cutler and Javalgi
1992). To add even more fuel to the fire, this study suggests that at least for
French, Spanish and American cultures household goods and food and beverages
would be most amenable to a standardized approach. However, the more important
finding is that culture supersedes product category.
This study suggests that French and American advertising are more similar than
Spanish advertising. This finding is surprising considering that France and
Spain are both high context cultures and lower in individualism than the United
The finding that Spanish television advertising carries a higher percentage of
messages of individualism than either French or American television advertising
may be due to the sample studied or could suggest that advertising as a cultural
phenomenon is somehow different from other institutions that reflect
individualism. Another characteristic of advertising, which is suggested by this
study, is that it does not reflect fully all the facets of individualism in a
given culture. Some types of individualism such as automobile driving habits may
not lend themselves to main message strategies. On the other hand, certain types
of individualism such as The Religious Individual or The Thrifty Individual may
not appear in advertising because they do not encourage product purchase.
Future research. This study demonstrates that six types of individualism are
sufficient for analyzing messages of individualism in the three cultures under
study. Future research in this area could begin with the identified six types
of individualism and inductively extend this analysis to other cultures. For
example, it would helpful to know by how many the main messages of individualism
would increase if other countries high in individualism such as Australia, Great
Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden,
Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa, and Norway, were added to the
study. Similarly, adding additional media categories to the existing study
would be helpful.
In contrast, the examination and analysis of the dominant values intertwined
with advertising in countries with low levels of individualism such as
Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, Peru, Taiwan
would help to illuminate even more the results reported here.
Another extension of this research would add contextual analysis. Contextual
cues such as gender, race, ethnic group, age, occupation, portrayal of nuclear
family, and camera techniques, which also carry messages of individualism, may
be as important as main message strategy. In fact, contextual cues may be the
key to understanding different advertising executions in high and low context
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Hofstede's Characteristics of Individualistic Cultures
1. Children grow up in nuclear families
2. Children learn to spend time alone unlike collectivist children who are
almost never alone
3. Child-rearing sets independence as a goal
4. Speaking one's mind is a virtue and is characteristic of a sincere and
5. Confrontation is believed to lead to a higher truth
6. Adults should have learned to take direct feedback constructively
7. Coping with conflict is a normal part of living
8. Children are expected and encouraged to develop opinions of their own, and
children who never voice opinions are thought to have a weak character
9. Children are encouraged to take small jobs in order to earn pocket-money of
their own, which they alone can decide how to spend
10. There is a lack of both financial and ritual obligations to the family.
Baptisms, marriages, and funerals are not as compulsory as in collectivist
11. Verbal communication (social conversations) are compulsory. Silence is
12. Communication is explicit and not self-evident (low context communication)
13. Self-respect is the closest counterpart to the collectivistic concept of
14. Self-respect is defined from the point of view of the individual--not the
15. Children break with parents or keep relationships to a minimum
16. People look after themselves and immediate family
1. Children are encouraged to speak up in class and express their own opinion
without consulting the group or working in groups
2. Two-way communication between teacher and student is encouraged
3. Students expect to be treated impartially
4. Students from different ethnic groups mix more freely and do not expect
5. Teachers who favored same ethnic background students would be considered
guilty of nepotism and immoral behavior
6. Students form groups on an ad hoc basis according to the task or to
particular friendships and skills
7. The purpose of education is independence
8. Learning creates a positive attitude toward new situations
9. People must learn to cope with new, unknown, unforseen situations that will
arise through life
10. Diplomas improve the holder's economic worth but also his or her
self-respect because it provides a sense of achievement
1. Work should be organized so self-interest and employer's interest coincide
2. Workers are economic men--people with a combination of economic and
3. Family relationships at work are considered undesirable because they may
lead to nepotism or conflict of interest.
4. The relationship between employer and employee is primarily conceived as a
business transaction between buyers and sellers on a labor market
5. Poor performance on the part of the employee or a better pay offer from
another employer are legitimate and socially accepted reasons for terminating a
6. Management of individuals is valued
7. Subordinates can be moved around individually
8. Bonuses are given according to individual performance
9. Formal appraisal interview communicate "bad news" directly to employees
without going through subtle, face-saving tactics
10. Universalism (treating everybody alike) is more ethical than particularism
(treating one's friends better than others)
11. The task prevails over personal relationships, and such things as trust are
not required to be developed prior to conducting business
12. Important goals on the job are:
1. Personal time -- having a job which leaves you sufficient time for your
personal or family life
2. Freedom--having considerable freedom to adopt your own approach to the job
3. Challenge--having challenging work to do--work from which you can achieve a
personal sense of accomplishment.
Ideas and Philosophy
1. Individual interests prevail over collective interests
2. Everyone has a right to privacy
3. Laws and rights are supposed to be the same for all
4. Economy is based on individual interests
5. Individualistic cultures are wealthier--higher GNP
6. Restrained role of government in the economic system
7. Political power is exercised by voters
8. Freedom of press rather than state control
9. Ideologies of individual freedom prevail over ideologies of equality
10. Self-actualization by every individual is the ultimate goal
11. According to Maslow's hierarchy, realizing to the fullest possible extent
the creative potential present within the individual is the supreme motivation.
(Hofstede 1991, pp. 49-78)