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



On 8 May 1886 John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia, formulated a drink that was used as medicine and later became the soda known as Coca-Cola. The product’s distribution across the world started when Robert Woodruff joined the company. Currently the product is distributed to more than 195 countries.

The impact of Coca-Cola on the whole world is difficult to quantify. However, it can be said that Coca-Cola embodies the spirit and essence of American culture unequalled by any other American product. The product transcends language, culture, race, gender, and age boundaries. Most importantly, however, is that the advertisements reflect American values and ways of living and carry these values over to other cultures. They do not change their campaigns to blend with the local culture in a country; rather they incorporate elements of that culture. However, the advertisements stay the same throughout the world; it is always clear that Coca-Cola is advertised and not any other soft drink. The identity of the brand is so strong and established that it cannot be confused with other products. The local element never distracts or overshadows the product; it only enhances the product and strengthens the message to the consumer to buy the product. The only concession is that the text is translated in countries where English is not a dominant force such as China, the former Soviet Union and Turkey. In other countries, a combination of English and a local language is used.

Marketing approach

In Fortune magazine’s 15th annual survey of corporate reputations, Coca-Cola was named as the most admired brand in America. In 1997 Coca-Cola was the most recognized brand in South Africa (Marketing Mix 1997: 52). This awareness of the product can be solely attributed to its advertising campaigns.

The company and the brand strive to dominate and take over in the soft drink market across the world. According to Brad Clemes, the marketing manager in South Africa, the company’s international success is based on a set of principles: the brand must offer unique taste, refreshment and authenticity. "Coke drinkers must experience emotional upliftment with every sip of their drink" (Marketing Mix 1997: 52).

It is clear that emotions play a large role in the advertisements created for the company; a "feel good" experience is associated with the product and this shows in the semiotic analysis of the product’s advertisements. According to Clemes "Coke’s advertising is greatly admired by consumers, which Clemes ascribes to the strategy of ‘advertising life’ (Marketing Mix 1997: 53). (See gallery.)

The company and the brand are selling a lifestyle, a way of seeing the world and persuading consumers to participate by drinking Coca-Cola. The company’s approach is to become entrenched in the community and become part of the consumers’ daily lives. The result is a mixing of cultures, where the American culture still dominates. Bits of local culture are used within a broader American concept of what a "feel good" experience should be. Another strategy to entrench the product in consumers’ lives is to be involved in community projects and sponsor high-profile sports events.

American culture in advertising

When one speaks of American culture, certain images are conjured up, such as certain buildings, movie stars, eating habits and cars. American culture consists of a mixture of many different cultures, just as in South Africa. The only difference is that as a nation, the population is unified in what America and American culture stands for. The language is one of the most obvious American characteristics: the pronunciation, spelling, and grammar that differ from British English.

A simple definition of culture is that culture is a set of practices and thoughts that distinguish one group of people from another. Lloyd Smith (1994: 298) is of the opinion that "there is an American culture and, secondly that there are many American cultures". It is thus clear that there is an internationally recognizable dominant culture and many sub-cultures.

The reason for the diversity is that the American population consists of diverse ethnic groupings. People have immigrated from Europe, South America, and the Far East to the USA. As a result the cultures of all these diverse people have helped to shape American culture. The homogeneous national culture is a response to considerable local diversity; a unifying and stabilizing set of cultural assumptions.

American culture is dynamic; it is constantly changing due to the influx of people from all over the world. In a country dominated by technology and mass media, a new type of culture has emerged. In this culture the image has replaced the authentic reality; the "scenario" has replaced the genuine action, and the individual has been "decentered" to the point of aimless consumerism. (Lloyd Smith 1994: 314). This aimless consumerism is achieved by the use of ever-increasing advertisements that infiltrate the rest of the world selling American lifestyles and ideals.

Impact on the world

The introduction of a brand that is very American leads to changes in the eating habits of the consumers. The impact is usually the greatest on the young market; children are much more susceptible to changes and new products than older people. Coca-Cola has been in South Africa for many years. The product represents a culture and this has an effect on the eating habits of people. Coca-Cola is associated with hamburgers and chips. This alternative choice of diet replaces local and indigenous foods and eating habits and thus influences society by imposing a foreign culture on to the local foods culture. This leads to a loss of originality and identity. In a country such as South Africa the possibility of discarding local cultures in favour of foreign cultures is so much bigger.

Kaynak (1989: 26) claims that underdeveloped countries’ consumers are more susceptible to advertising because they are "more easily affected by promotion than their developed country counterparts, and their brand preferences or total spending patterns may be permanently affected by promotion".

According to Soloman (WWW) "America is a nation of fantasizers, often preferring the sign to the substance…". He contends that advertisers give shape to consumer desire, but that the subconscious dreams and desires of the market already exist. The same can be said for the youth of the rest of the Western and Eastern world. The American way of living presents an idealised world where everything is possible if you have a dream; it is the land of opportunity where everyone is equal. This belief in the self is taken to extremes and manifests in statements made about the superiority of people and the product. Examples of this are: "Coca-Cola people always better" and "Always refreshing". The product is transformed into signs of all that is desirable in American life. Coca-Cola has become a symbol of American culture.

Coca-Cola exploits fantasies around youth, friendship, belonging and action. Television and film advertisements are fast-moving with a lot of activities taking place. Often their advertisements show groups of people; the emphasis is on the group and not the individual. An example of this idea is captured in a television commercial that was filmed in Italy. Young people from numerous nations were seen standing on a hilltop and singing "I’d like to buy the world a Coke" in 1971. This song later became a well-known pop song " I’d like to teach the world to sing". (See gallery.)

Drinking Coca-Cola makes you part of a family of people across the world who share the experience and lifestyle. In the late eighties the company used celebrities such as Whitney Houston to endorse its products. Again the fantasy element was at work. Whitney Houston was at the high point of her career in late eighties, early nineties, and thus having a famous singer/model as spokesperson for the product increased its credibility among the youth and her fans.

The product’s superiority and continuity are always incorporated in slogans and logos. This creates a feeling of familiarity and comfort with the consumer. Words such as "Always" emphasise the familiarity and try to form a bond with the consumer with slogans such as "Always yours" or "Always refreshing". These messages are comforting and reassuring. (See gallery.)

Examples of Coca-Cola advertisements in South Africa and Belgium

The most striking and important feature of the brand is the colours associated with the product, namely red and white. Red is a strong, emotional colour, whereas white is neutral but highly contrastive with red. Red attracts attention and stands out among other colours; it is associated with danger, excitement, love and maybe also danger. It is a cheeky, daring colour filled with emotional connotations. White is associated with purity and goodness.

The market at which the advertisements are aimed is young: from children to teenagers to young adults. Once these consumers are captured, nostalgia is used to keep their loyalty. The advertising strategies applied in the USA are used unchanged in countries such as South Africa and Belgium. Market strategies differ in that the respective markets have different cultures, but only marginally so in a First World country such as Belgium. South Africa is a developing Third World country. For this reason the marketing strategy and advertisements have to be tailored to fit this market and general awareness of the brand has to be established. The company does this by sponsoring many projects in black townships, supporting sports events and competitions for young people.

It was extremely difficult to get hold of examples of advertisements of this product, especially in South Africa. The company itself was not forthcoming at all and would not part with any examples from their archives. Numerous telephone calls to various key people in the organisation proved unsuccessful. Requests were passed on to at least six people, who either ignored the telephone calls or passed the request on to the next person. The only sympathetic people in the organisation were the various secretaries. The advertising agency handling the account was even less helpful. The account director suggested that this type of request would be illegal in the USA where he hails from, and promptly refused to help.

Therefore the number of examples is few and not truly representative of what is being done in South Africa. The situation in Belgium was totally different. The below-the-line agency, Véridic, was extremely helpful and gave a good selection of material to be used.


All advertisements for the product are either produced in French or Flemish. In some cases where the only words are that of the slogan such as "Always Coca-Cola" this would not be the case. The fine print would then be either in French or Flemish.

A lot of emphasis is placed on print advertisements, mostly in the form of billboards and other outdoor advertising, and below-the-line advertising such as promotional material, merchandise, sponsorships and competitions. The second most used medium is television and movie theatre advertisements. Over a three-month period in Belgium, no radio advertisements were to be heard on six different radio stations (Flemish and French). The product is often advertised on MTV (Music Television), which is transmitted from the UK.


The most striking advertisement for the product is the newspaper supplement about the company and the product that appeared on 8 February 1996. The French supplement appeared in the French newspaper Le Soir; the Flemish version appeared in Het Nieuwsblad. This is an example of the changeable nature of advertisements. This advertisement has the format of a newspaper, but the function of persuading the readers to buy the product and support the brand. (See gallery.)

In both supplements the heading is in English: "Coca-Cola People Always Better". This slogan is throughout the supplement. The front page deals with the history of the company and contains an article about the company in Belgium. Semiotically, the sign of the company and brand is central on the page, together with its slogan "Always Coca-Cola". Even if the receiver does not read the supplement, the icon will be remembered. The image is imprinted on the memory of the receiver, irrespective of what language he speaks.

On the second page the vision of the company is discussed and explained, accompanied by full-colour photographs of delivery trucks, the head office, workers doing various activities, and its community involvement. There is little text but many brightly coloured photographs. Again the focus is on the red colour of the logo. The name and the colour are the signs used to create recognition.

The third page has more text than the rest; the focus here is on the values espoused by the company. The brightly coloured photographs of the product in various situations again draw the receiver’s attention, away from the text. The back page consists of a collage of people employed by the company surrounding the mission statement in the middle of the page.

Language and cultural approach

Very few cultural adaptations can be seen in all the advertising material created for Belgium. One could assume that the same campaigns were used in other West European countries and the USA.

Retail poster

The title of the "Red Hot Summer" campaign uses the sign (red colour) as a play on the company’s logo. Coca-Cola is a carbonized cold drink used to quench thirst. In this campaign the focus is on the refreshing qualities of the product. This is set within a context of hot summer holidays at the seaside. Although not the ideal vacation for many people, the associations created with this campaign are vivid and clear, namely that Coca-Cola provides fun and refreshment for your holiday enjoyment. This is done by giving away merchandise that fit into the image of someone going to have a holiday at the seaside. (See gallery.)

The underlying assumption that Belgians will all go the coast for a hot summer holiday is ironic, since the temperatures never rise very high in summer and the Belgian beaches cannot be compared to those of the Mediterranean or those of the west and east coasts of the USA.

The last sentence on the side of the paper with the merchandise could be read as a simple wish being expressed. However, taking the above into account, this sentence could be interpreted as a confession that the assumptions in the advertisements could not hold true for many consumers/receivers.

In all the advertisements English is used together either with Flemish or French. Headings, slogans and logos are always in English. The less important information is in the language of the receivers. The product is of American origin and thus always associated with the country, its culture and people. Presenting the advertisements in English creates a natural connotation with these aspects. Scott Sanborn of Ammirati Puris Lintas advertising agency in the Netherlands confirms this notion by saying, "Engels is de taal van film, muziek and MTV…het is overal en het is de coole jongeren taal" (Anon., 1997: 36).

This statement underlines the fact that young people in Europe view English as exotic, different and hip. Their own languages and cultures do not provide the same level of desirability as English or American English, for that matter.

The same applies to the French advertisements, except that there are fewer English words used than in the Flemish advertisements. The headings, slogans and logos are kept in English. The language used on the merchandise is English throughout.

Coca-Cola Light

This advertisement is a prime example of how cultural codes in the USA are carried over to the Belgian culture. This information sheet is given to retailers of Coca-Cola products in which a competition is announced. The assumption is made that Belgian consumers would view a Harley-Davidson motorcycle as the ultimate prize to be won in a competition. The advertisement clearly says that this prize is "De droom van alle Coca-Cola light fans". (See gallery.)

The advertiser (Coca-Cola) reasons that if a consumer likes Coca-Cola Light, s/he would like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and thus the culture it represents.

South Africa

The company advertises mainly outdoors: on banners, billboards, posters, paintings on buildings (such as cafes), delivery vehicles and kiosks. (See gallery.)

In South Africa print advertisements and advertisements for television and movie theatres are only created in English. In exceptional cases, a radio advertisement would be created in Afrikaans. During the early 1990s an Afrikaans jingle was written by Greta Bredell (at McCann Erikson agency) for Coca-Cola. Unfortunately this recording could not be found. A rap song was created for the product but aired only very briefly on radio KFM in the Western Cape during June 1998. (It was not possible to get hold of this recording.)

People billboard

Semiotically this advertisement is filled with strong signs. People are arranged in such a way as to form the shape of Coca-Cola bottle. Two strong elements, Coca-Cola and people, are linked to form a subsequent sign meaning. Coca-Cola (and all that it stands for) brings young people together to share fun and enjoyment. (See gallery.)

In this case the two signs are inseparable: the image of a bottle is formed by the arrangement of people; the one cannot exist in this context without the other. In the South African context this advertisement is particularly relevant, although it could also be used in the USA. (It was created in South Africa especially for the local market, according to the advertising agency.)

Ninety percent of the people in the advertisement are black, which is a reflection of the population in South Africa. The people look happy and hold Coca-Cola bottles in their hands. The colourful and bright clothes worn by them are a reflection of the "rainbow nation" concept. South Africa consists of many cultures and ethnic groupings that are all different from each other. Instead of wearing the red and white colour scheme of the product that would imply a homogeneous group of people, they dress differently to show their individuality and diversity. But they are bound together by their choice of drink.

SA World Cup Promotion

This advertising campaign linked up with the soccer World Cup in France 1998. The advertisements under discussion included an entry form and a poster. The company used a world event to promote its product and merchandise. (See gallery.)

Entry form

The entry form is generic and could be used anywhere in the world where English is spoken. There are only five instances from which the receiver can see that the form is meant for a South African audience. They are: South African soccer fan, Bafana Bafana, Woza Weekend, taxinet kiosk, and the rules. Bafana Bafana refers to the South African soccer team, Woza Weekend is a local television programme, and a taxinet kiosk refers to a meeting point of minibus taxis (a typically South African phenomenon). (See gallery.)

No other cultural adaptations or references were made to the entry form. It was only available in English, not in any black languages or Afrikaans.

Semiotic aspects

The information side of the entry form has a red background with yellow and white lettering. It seems like a can with drops of water running down. The receiver immediately recognizes the product; this is re-enforced with the heading "Celebrate with Coca-Cola". The striking heading grabs the attention, promising a prize of a lifetime. The underlying message is that Coca-Cola makes everything possible; it is a celebration of life when you are part of the Coca-Cola family. The advertisement suggests that life would be dull without Coca-Cola.


Much of the above applies to the poster. The poster is generic and could be used anywhere in the world, except for two aspects. One of the characters on the poster has a South African flag painted on his face. This element contextualises the poster. Mention is also made of Woza Weekend, a television programme. Apart from that, the poster has the appearance of an American advertisement. (See gallery.)