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In Ads, the Right Language Means More Than Just the Words

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and this week on WORDMASTER: choosing the right language for advertising.

The December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research contains a paper by Rohini Ahluwalia at the University of Minnesota and Aradhna Krishna at the University of Michigan. They studied how bilingual consumers in New Delhi evaluated ads written in Hindi or English, or in a mixture known as Hinglish.

Professor Ahluwalia says they compared multinationals with local companies, and necessities with higher-priced goods.

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "What we find is that when you have a local company, it seems people are not paying that much attention to the language of the advertising, or the language of the communication."

AA: "So you're saying that the consumers pay more attention to the language of product if that product -- "

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "Of the advertising.

AA: "I'm sorry, the language of the advertising, if they know that that product is made by a foreign company."

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "That's right."

AA: "And when you say they pay more attention, is that good or not so good?"

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "Could be good, could be bad, depending on the language that you use and the associations that come out of that language. And the reason you would pay more attention to the language is simply because the language may be unexpected.

"So you may be more likely to expect that this foreign corporation that's marketing this product might be communicating to the consumers in a more formal, maybe in a foreign language such as English."

AA: "Does the nature of the product matter?"

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "The nature of the product does matter, as we find in terms of the implications drawn. The expectation may be more likely that you would expect, let's say even if you're talking about a necessity like a detergent, that you would get a message perhaps in English. The moment you get a message that is either in the native language or is a mixed message, that seems to generate more attention to the language that is used.

"In every case, the consumer might be thinking about what it is that you're talking about, or what's your selling proposition or what's the communication content. But the fact that you would pay attention to the language of the communication, we find, is much more likely if the message is coming from a multinational corporation than when it comes from a local corporation.

"So for a multinational corporation that is marketing let's say a product such a detergent or a soap or any other necessity that we want to think about, if their advertising is in the local language, the native language, then it's likely that the language associations would get triggered in the mind of the consumers. And that feeling of belongingness or closeness might be more likely to be elicited."

AA: "Meaning that they will feel more likely to buy the product."

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "Exactly. However, if you were to use a native language if you were selling a luxury product -- and in our studies we don't use a really high-end luxury product at all. We used chocolate, and that could be moderately priced but in certain markets it might be more of a luxury than a detergent.

"But when you use a product such a chocolate, when you use a Hindi slogan versus let's say an English slogan, what we find is the Hindi slogan actually hurts you, because it's not the closeness, it's not that that's important in evaluating that product. What seems to be more important is the sophistication or the prestige or maybe the globalness or cosmopolitanness of that product."

AA: "So meaning that the people want, they expect that the higher priced chocolate is going to be advertised to them in English, because English is associated with greater sophistication?"

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "Absolutely. And that's more likely to happen if the company that's selling this product is a multinational. However, we find when the company is a local company, it doesn't seem to matter. A Hindi slogan works fine, as does an English slogan."

AA: "Did any of your findings surprise you?"

ROHINI AHLUWALIA: "We were surprised to see that there was no effect for the local corporations, because we were expecting to begin with, that maybe the English language may enhance the impact of certain products for the local corporations. But what we found is it didn't seem to matter either way. Because most of the time, when people were processing ad slogans related to local corporations, they were more likely to be focusing on the content.

"If you are a multinational corporation, it helps a lot to think about using mixed language. Because when you are using let's say just a native language, even in the case of a product that's a necessity, there is a possibility of that backfiring."

AA: Rohini Ahluwalia is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. I'm Avi Arditti.