Media: Clowns can't sell to Swedes or Germans: As world advertising makes its awards, Martin Rosenbaum explores the problems of promoting crisps in Italy and the Big Mac in Paris

When Coca-Cola ran the slogan 'Coke adds life' in China, it was reportedly translated into Chinese to mean 'Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead'. And when McDonald's promoted Le Big Mac in Paris, it discovered that in local slang this suggested 'the big pimp'. International advertising can be a risky business.

Despite potential pitfalls, many companies are increasingly keen on standardising the marketing and advertising of their products across countries. For British firms, Europe is the key. While others argue about the merits of the Maastricht treaty and economic and monetary union, advertising agencies have been discussing to what extent there is a European consumer. And can you get at him or her with campaigns that are similar across the Continent?

The trend towards pan-European advertising is already well under way. The Polaroid television commercial featuring gangsters who need to prove they have got the promised goods is an example of one ad used in several countries, dubbed as necessary.

Europe's largest agency, the French-owned Euro RSCG, estimates that cross-border advertising already amounts to around dollars 1.5bn ( pounds 790m) of the annual European total of dollars 4bn that it spends for its clients. Such campaigns include work for Peugeot, Procter & Gamble, and Tampax. A survey by the agency earlier this year showed that 81 per cent of marketing directors of brands sold across the Continent aimed to standardise their advertising.

Clients favour standardisation for a variety of reasons. First it saves money - they can pay for the filming of just one commercial to be used in several countries with different soundtracks. Similar savings can be made on photography for print ads. Second, many are already accustomed to thinking in a European rather than national mode, especially when planning new products, and want agencies to do likewise. Third, some believe that as European integration progresses, consumers will be confused by different images of the same product in Birmingham and Barcelona.

But this trend faces formidable obstacles. For a start, national advertising styles vary enormously. 'The British like humour, especially irony and puns,' says Simon Anholt of the multilingual copy-writing service, Translators in Advertising. 'But you have to change this for the Germans and Swedes, who say that they don't buy from clowns. They think that if you haven't got anything good to say about the product then you make a joke.

'In Portugal and France, they are much less worried about sexism. In fact, the Portuguese more or less insist on being rude to women, and the French use naked women in completely gratuitous contexts. As for the Italians, they love yuppie lifestyle ads with well-dressed beautiful models drinking expensive drinks. The Germans are not impressed by this - they prefer more realistic settings.' He maintains that this is not just national stereotyping, but is 'based on hard experience'.

Countries also favour different products. The British eat eight times as many potato crisps as the Italians, while the latter spend much more than the British on shoes. And even when we do buy the same products it can be for different reasons. In Paris it is regarded as a semi-luxury to buy sliced white loaves at Marks & Spencer. In Britain BMW and Audi cars have a more upmarket image than in their home country of Germany.

These differences lead some to downplay the notion of the European consumer. Karin Dixon of the Henley Centre, the research and forecasting company, says: 'Our annual pan-European study of consumer behaviour has found no strong evidence of an emerging European consumer. There are some similarities in consumer attitudes, but generally local tastes differ and advertisers have to be sensitive to this. For example, in Holland consumers are much more interested in environmental factors. The Italians are generally more prepared to buy the best, irrespective of price, and the Germans are more interested in value for money.'

Occasionally the point of advertising is not to appeal to people but to rouse them. And here, too, national differences arise. The deliberately provocative advertising by Benetton, the Italian clothing company, has consistently won awards in Holland but elsewhere, as intended, has generated enormous controversy and publicity. Marysia Woroniecka, the company's UK press officer, says that the British are shocked particularly easily. While other companies seek the common preferences of European consumers, Benetton seeks the common taboos to break.

Many advertisers are keen to stress the importance of the product area. Winston Fletcher, chairman of Bozell Europe, says: 'In some markets, such as computers and airlines, consumers are more or less the same kind of people around Europe, and you need to communicate the same message everywhere. In markets such as cosmetics and confectionery at least the motivation to buy is similar. But there are other areas, such as alcohol, where habits are utterly

different.'

This need to cope with pan-European market research and advertising has been steadily driving agencies which are not already part of multinationals into Europe-wide networks. Bernard Barnett, editorial director of Campaign magazine, says: 'Agencies are having to join European networks just to get on to shortlists for business. Very few can afford to be only domestic.'

But, with or without such structural change, agencies still face a difficult challenge. They need to satisfy their clients' desires for pan-European campaigns without producing 'lowest common denominator' advertisements - which make sense to everyone but are so bland that their impact is much reduced. Some international publications such as Time are already full of dreary examples.

Naturally, agencies believe it can be done. Advertising people are not famous for modesty, and some, such as Maurice Saatchi, of the agency Saatchi & Saatchi, like to talk about the 'Mona Lisa effect': the best art, music and writing crosses national boundaries, so why shouldn't the best advertising? Bernard Barnett comments: 'It is acknowledged in the industry that a great ad works anywhere.'

(Photographs omitted)

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