Music in business communications: a cross-cultural pitfall

Advertising is quite possibly the first area of business communications that was given freedom to be creative and to speak to more than one of our senses. The use of music and jingles is a prime example. Custom jingles can help recall the name and other key information about the product. Background music, when well-chosen, can help establish a mood and express emotional characteristics of the brand, evoking what the experience of using/owning/buying the product might feel like.

But music can also be a distraction or worse, especially in a cross-cultural context. Below are three examples I’ve run across.

The advertising for Guerlain’s “La Petite Robe Noire (LIttle Black Dress)” perfume shows a lively animated little black dress romping across Paris to a bouncy song. But inexplicably, the song is Nancy Sinatra’s “These boots are made for walking”. And worse, in the short form ad, the lyrics have been edited to be a series of non sequitirs:

You keep playing where you shouldn’t be playing…
I just found me a brand-new box of matches, yeah
And what he knows you ain’t had time to learn
These boots are made for walking…

Furthermore, the lyrics have nothing to do with the action of the film, where the little black dress is meeting a man, not walking out on one.

The next example works in a non-North American context — Peugeot’s 2008 ad combines images and music that evoke Americana in an aggregated way that appeals to an international audience — but makes no sense to an American . The car drives across scenery in the Southwest (that looks like Monument Valley to me), but the music is “Home” from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, which opens with the line “Alabama, Arkansas…” which are on the other side of the country from the scene shown on-screen. This disconnect is jarring for someone from the cultural supposedly being portrayed. It’s like using syrtaki music to sell something English.

The final example actually moves from irrelevant into creepy. A woman hops onto a high-speed train, we assume just at the last minute since she seems frazzled. She bites into a Kinder Maxi candy bar, and a bed of clouds forms around her body. She relaxes back into it, clearly at ease. At the end of the ad, she offers a piece of the candy bar to the little boy across from her, and he accepts, after a nod from his mother.

The music, however, adds a really inappropriate lens to the entire scene. The only lyric we hear from the music-box like song played is “If we slept together, would it make it any better?” Not only is this irrelevant to the scene, but the juxtaposition with the image of a stranger offering candy to a child is really unfortunate. It’s hard to believe that no one from Ferrero/Kinder caught this.

These three ads underscore the importance of having any cross-cultural elements of any key business communication examined both by people from the target culture but also from the source culture to make sure that you don’t send messages that are inappropriate or even negative for your brand or organization. Depending on the context, this can be done through internal consultation, or with the help an an external consultant to organize focus groups that can gather much richer feedback than an e-mail to a harried colleague will elicit.

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