Consumers React To Insults, However Unintentional

Dec. 21, 2004
Lack of cultural consciousness translates to major marketing mistakes

Blue is for boys. And pink is for girls. Among many Canadians and U.S. citizens these color associations are so ingrained that they seem to be instinctive. On store shelves, boxes of disposable diapers designed for male infants are often colored blue. Those for baby girls, similarly, are in pink boxes. In fact, theres nothing natural or instinctive about these associations. Much of the rest of the world, for example, associates yellow with females. And in many countries, red is the predominant masculine color. The point is that, time and again, advertisers educated in the United States and Canada find to their deep chagrin--and commercial cost--that they have been blind to the traditions of other cultures. And it is not just a matter of being color-blind to other cultural traditions. Nike Inc. knows that only too well. The company recently recalled 38,000 basketball shoes after its flame-design logo drew protests from Muslims. The offense: The logo was said to resemble the Arabic word for Allah. Indeed, Nike is not the first shoe manufacturer to have such problems. A riot in Bangladesh, a Muslim country, a few years back is said to have been a result of the resemblance of the Thom McAn shoe logo to the word Allah. Neither Nike nor Thom McAn intended to put the word Allah on their products; they simply failed to recognize how their graphics resembled the word for God. Actually, Nike and Thom McAn, with their emphasis on feet, ran afoul of another cultural tradition. In the Arabic world, the foot is considered unclean. And to show the sole of ones foot to another person--even accidentally--is an insult. Imagine how Muslims felt when they saw shoes, something that comes in contact with (to Muslims) an unclean body part apparently decorated with the name of Allah! These days, soccer is played widely by youths around the world. But a soccer ball emblazoned with the flags of nations competing in the World Cup can be offensive to Muslims. The reason: The flag of Saudi Arabia displays a quote from the Koran, the holy book of Islam, which includes the name of Allah. And kicking the name of Allah is unacceptable. To be sure, not all Muslims are of one mind on such matters. As long as there is no evidence of an actual intent to defame Islam, some North American Muslims shrug off these cultural mistakes, concluding they arise from ignorance on the part of advertisers. However, it seems safe to say that no observant Muslim would like to see the name of Allah misused. There are at least two other important points about marketing to the Muslim world that should be kept in mind: Islam proscribes the drinking of alcohol and the eating of pork; and dogs and the unclothed human body are culturally objectionable. Finally, global marketers need to recognize that Muslim populations exist not only in the Middle East, but throughout much of Africa and Asia as well. Indeed, the most populous Islamic nation in the world is Indonesia, an archipelago in Southeast Asia. It has almost 200 million citizens, 87% percent of whom are Muslim. Islam also is one of the fastest-growing religions in North America, where there are now some 6 million Muslims. Advertisers and graphic designers may feel that the demands of various religions and cultural traditions are a burden. However, as Nike discovered, even when a community is a minority (as with Muslims in North America), its opposition can still affect a corporations public image and purse strings. Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries, and Dun & Bradstreets Guide to Doing Business Around the World. For more data about Getting Through Customs Seminars, Online Database, and books: Tel: (610) 353-9894; fax:(610) 353-6994; e-mail: [email protected]; or Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit Getting Through Customs Web site at

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