A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements
ilze bezuidenhout

The Instrument in Action


In the previous chapters much theory regarding discourse and semiotic analysis as well as translation was discussed in order to arrive at a possible solution to the transfer of cultural elements in persuasive advertisements in various media. The aim of this chapter is to show how these theoretical insights can be applied in practice. A selection of South African (English and Afrikaans) and Belgian (French and Flemish) advertisements and their translations will be examined and discussed in terms of semiotics, language and cultural transfer. It will become clear that advertisements are dynamic entities that cannot be straitjacketed and confined to rules. Two international brands, Coca-Cola and Absolut vodka, will be discussed to illustrate the influence of multinational advertisements and their influence on other cultures. In the case of Coca-Cola the advertisements portray a typically American way of life, whereas the Absolut advertisements transcend cultural barriers, but at the same time incorporate and involve local cultures into specific advertisements.


Two international products, Coca-Cola and Absolut vodka, and a few examples of their persuasive advertisements will be discussed. They are two of the three brands inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame; the other brand is Nike. The differences in approach to global advertising will be compared.



The product has its origin in Sweden, where it has been produced for the past 400 years. Absolut vodka has been sold under this name since 1879. It became the biggest imported brand in the USA and the number one premium vodka brand in the world (Absolut: WWW).

The first advertisement that appeared in the USA in 1980 summed up the essence of the brand in two words "Absolut Perfection". This trend of short and catchy lines would characterise all the Absolut advertisements to follow.

The manufacturers in Sweden had put together a concept board containing the main ideas that they wanted from the advertising campaign. The product should be the hero. It should be lit up from the back so that the name can be seen clearly. There should be a simple and bold statement about the product’s attributes, and humour should also be included. The agency that came up with the winning concept was TBWA in New York. The concept for advertising Absolut captured the soul of the product and its long history.

The versatility and genius of the campaign allowed for an infinite number of possibilities and executions of the basic concept. The advertising campaign for Absolut has become something of a cult in America. As a result, collectors have started collecting the original artwork of the advertisements.

The advertising campaign of the product has branched out into several different spheres such as art and fashion. In the mid-80s the pop artist Andy Warhol painted the Absolut bottle, which was the first of series of modern artists painting their interpretation of the famous product. These artworks have become sought-after pieces amongst collectors. In this case advertising has been elevated into the realms of serious art. (See gallery.)

The versatility of the campaign enables the advertiser to tailor-make the advertisement according to the needs of the medium. The product was the first to appear on the centre pages of Playboy men’s magazine, that are usually reserved for the photo of a pin-up girl. In this case, a bottle without any lettering was used with the caption "Absolut Centerfold".

The Absolut brand is endorsing fashion events such as the annual Absolut fashion shows, where designers have to create outfits which capture the essence of the product, and have the product name incorporated into the design. The winning designs are then modelled by famous women and photographed by famous photographers and catalogued for world distribution.

Marketing approach

The sign is a bottle in the middle of a black background in a spotlight. This is the traditional, best known presentation of the advertisement. The reflection of the bottle on the table is shown. A strong brand awareness is created: the product is the point of attention, like a playboy surrounded by beautiful women. The bottle used has the shape of an old Swedish medicine bottle, thus a cultural icon was retained. (In the 16th and 17th centuries vodka was sold in pharmacies as a medicine to cure everything.)

It is a multinational company. The advertising campaigns are aimed at consumers across the world. It has retained its cultural roots: it has not become Americanized in the sense that people would think that it is an American product. Why? American stereotypes and signs do not dominate the campaigns, although they use an American advertising agency.

It has become a world product because not one specific cultural flavour/angle/ etiquette has been cultivated in the consumer’s mind. It is like a chameleon; it changes colour and approach depending on the situation and what is demanded of the product within that situation. The logo on the bottle clearly states that the product comes from the "Country of Sweden"; this emphasises the tradition of purity of the product. The spelling of "Absolut" without the –e gives it a Swedish touch.

Semiotically speaking it is important to note that the product always stands centrally. Ideas and other spin-offs are built around the product. The meanings created in different advertisements always differ because the product stays the same, but not its surroundings or the contexts in which it is promoted.

The form/shape of the bottle is that of an old medicine bottle. It can be easily distinguished from any other alcoholic drink bottles. The advertisements are without exception either clever or humorous, or tongue-in-cheek comments or a combination. They do not signal obvious, in-your-face messages, but require the receiver to think about the advertisement and the message.

The diversity of the advertisements created around this product ranges from seasonal occasions such as Christmas, to the representation of cities such as Cape Town and Gauteng, to artists’ contributions. The advertisements created for this product are slick and sophisticated, with a European feeling. The reason could be that the market consists of people over 18 who share the ideas and sophistication represented by the product.

Signs and translation

Quite often no text is used in the advertisements, only the wording on the bottle. Semiotically speaking, it would be impossible to translate these advertisements. They would have to be recreated for the target receivers/consumers. The translator would have to determine very accurately what the advertisement was supposed to do by looking at where it appeared, in what type of publication or where, such as on a billboard. If the effect was to amuse, the same could be achieved for the target receivers. If the message was not culturally bound (in other words referring to a specific city or cultural event), it could very well stay the same. Again the translator would have to determine whether the majority of the receivers would understand the reference.

The advertisements created for this product can transcend cultural and language barriers because of their simplicity and all-round appeal. Few or no words are used, which captures the essence and spirit of a message / idea / concept. The bottle is often given human qualities such as thought by means of thought / speech bubbles. Sometimes the product has nothing to do with the reference but is a clever way of establishing the product in consumer / receiver’s mind.

The translator of an Absolut advertisement could be faced either with an easy task or a hugely problematic one. The translator has to be aware of what is culturally relevant and applicable in both the source and target languages and cultures.

The advertisements do not take away a part of a culture, but rather add and enhance local references and icons. Whether it is by commissioning artists from different countries to paint their interpretation of the bottle or whether it is by referring to places in a specific country or using foreign languages (as in the case of "Absolut Boeretroos"). A selection of advertisements will be discussed to give an idea of how specific cultural elements are incorporated.

Absolut Gauteng

This advertisement cannot be translated or translated by using semiotic tools, the reason being that this is as close to semiotic perfection as one could get. The traditional format of the advertising campaign is used. The only differences are the caption and the appearance of the bottle. This is an example of an advertisement encapsulating the spirit of the region. The Gauteng region is known worldwide for its gold mines, which generate millions for the country. Within the South African context no explanation is needed to understand what the advertisement is saying. The essence of what the region is most known for has been captured in the gold bottle. The connotation derived from the colour of the bottle is inevitably that of gold, and the caption confirms and anchors this notion. The words and the visual image cannot exist without each other in this context. (See gallery.)

Absolut Boeretroos

This advertisement was created for the South African market. Only those people who have an understanding and knowledge of Afrikaans would understand it, the reason being that "boeretroos" is an old Afrikaans word, meaning coffee. Linguistically it means sympathy for the Boer (historically the Afrikaans farmer but also referring to all white Afrikaners). It is a humorous and fun way of presenting the product by addressing the Afrikaans culture. The advertisement addresses a specific culture and its people. The use of a semi-archaic word is also surprising, but this attracts the attention even more, making the advertising very striking and memorable. This advertisement was used with great success at the Nasionale Klein Karoo Kunstefees, a mainly Afrikaans arts festival held annually. (See gallery.)

Semiotically speaking, it is interesting that the halo as used in the "Absolut Perfection" advertisement was retained in this advertisement. One could argue that an anomaly exists between the words and the product.

Absolut Sun City

This advertisement was created to depict Monte Carlo, the gambling capital of the world. The caption read "Absolut Monte Carlo".

A roulette table connotes gambling and winning or losing money. In this case the bottle itself was not photographed, but a table and a chair resembling its form. The clever arrangement of the table, the players’ chairs and the chair of the croupier form the shape of the Absolut bottle.

This advertisement was cleverly adapted for a South African audience by replacing "Monte Carlo" with "Sun City". A South African audience would immediately associate Sun City with gambling; they would also associate it with the original reference. The advertisement was given a local reference and colour and therefore the South African consumer would feel that he is addressed in terms of images and names within his local frame of reference. (See gallery.)

Absolut Cape Town

An ethereal and culturally very specific example is "Absolut Cape Town". The advertisement shows letters, the top and the face of the originator, Lars Olsson Smith, flying off the bottle. This advertisement was originally created for "Absolut Chicago". The flying objects signify the quality attributed to both Cape Town and Chicago: windy. Cape Town is known for its fierce Southeaster that blows everything and everyone away in summer. (See gallery.)

The wide appeal of Absolut advertisements lies therein that they are specific but also general. A wide range of receivers can understand the message. General statements about the product such as "Absolut Perfection", "Absolut Magic", or "Absolut Elegance" comment on the product’s qualities. The advertisements are not overtly persuasive, but they sell a lifestyle and desirability that persuade the receiver/consumer to become part of this world created by Absolut. This is one of a few products in the world that uses advertising to reach beyond mere selling but into the realm of art. (See gallery.)