You mean you don’t break the law?

Flames lick the air, sun streams into a dusty cellar, the camera pans around, and actress-turned-spokesperson Mila Kunis turns to camera and tells us, ‘The Beam family have a long history of doin’ things their own way’.

So opens a recent installment of Jim Beam’s #MakeHistory global advertising campaign for their Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (click here to view in a new window).

The advertisement falls within the popular genre of US whiskey / whisky advertising exemplified by Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, among many others. These ads use virtual tropes to draw upon a sense of tradition, authenticity, and rural Americana. This is often a successful formula, especially when combined with not terribly aggressing-looking bikers or world famous actresses.

The problem with the Jim Beam commercial, in an international context, is that it goes beyond evocative Americana imagery which is open to wide interpretation, to make assertions, the interpretation of which are very much rooted in the culture of the audience, not the brand.

 

Cultural context dictates meaning / interpretation

Pulling a red-hot branding iron out of a brassier, firelight dancing on her face, Mila Kunis goes on to tell us, ‘They age every drop of Jim Beam twice as long as the law requires…’

The intended meaning of this statement is that Jim Beam is a quality brand. This interpretation rests on a deeply held and very American set of unspoken assumptions about one’s personal relationships with law and regulation. Naturally a company would not go beyond what the law forces them to do: that would infringe on their freedom. So in this context, ageing bourbon not just a little longer but twice as long as the legal minimum is intended to be a strong statement of commitment to quality.

However, typical European views of regulation are very different to those widely held in the US. In Europe, regulations tend to be seen as an absolute minimum, put in place for the public good. Companies, especially those for whom quality is an explicit brand value, are assumed to go well beyond legal minimums as a matter of course.

For a European audience, then, bringing up the subject of a legal minimum detracts from the sense of quality, and worse, can raise questions in the European viewer’s mind such as: ‘So what areas don’t you go beyond regulations?’ and ‘How often do you wash your hands, just the legal minimum?’

 

Cultural Intuition

Jim Beam could have sidestepped this issue by relying on pretty visuals and iconic American music in their advert, as these elements would have left a broader palette upon which people could impose their own meanings.

Adding the specificity of language gives rise to a problem for which there really is only one solution: talking with and soliciting opinions from a range of people from the cultures being targeted. This can be a long and expensive solution, but with the Internet and social media, it need not be. There are pitfalls in gathering opinion, as any individual will not represent the whole of their culture – for you, the good news is there are some established ethnographic techniques you can use. Below are a few resources to help you out.

 

Different markets need different ad copy

Ageing is a key concept in the marketing of whisky / whiskey, and the fact that the Beam family age their bourbon not a little longer but twice as long as the law requires tells us that they go that extra mile. Clearly this is a key point for the Beam advertising team, and one which can be communicated in ways that don’t put off potential customers, merely because they don’t share American norms of communication and interpretation. A possible European ad could highlight the consistent quality of Jim Beam, or could provide details of the four-year ageing process.

The takeaway: Don’t assume you are sending all of your customers the same message – adapt your language to your international markets!

 

Selected online resources

 Ethnography.com

QSR International (a commercial site)

University of Manchester (UK)

Online QDA (University of Huddersfield)

Global People (University of Warwick)

 

Further reading

Basic:

Fox, Kate (2014) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder.

Intermediate:

Heath, Shirley Brice (1983) Ways With Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Linde, Charlotte (2009) Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Advanced:

Gumperz, John J. (1992) ‘Contextualization and understanding’. In Duranti, Alessandro and Charles Goodwin (eds.), Rethinking Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 229-52. (PDF)

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, John and Dell Hymes (eds.) (1986) Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd.