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


The Belgian advertising industry faces similar problems regarding language and culture as their counterparts in the South African advertising industry. Belgium has two official languages, Flemish and French; South Africa has 11 official languages but traditionally advertised mainly in English and Afrikaans. However, Belgian advertising agencies often create advertisements simultaneously in Flemish and in French, whereas South African agencies conceptualise and create advertisements in English and then translate them into other languages. As a result, many advertisements appear to be translations that have not been recreated with cultural elements taken into account.

The advertising industry in Belgium is in the fortunate position that most companies realise that cultural and language diversity have to be respected, and thus make funds available for the development of advertisements in both official languages, namely Flemish (a Dutch dialect) and French. When an advertising campaign has to be created, two teams work on the project: the one group in Flemish and the other one in French. The two teams work independently from another. Finally, they compare their respective campaigns and decide upon the best one to fulfil the client’s needs.

The criteria for choosing certain concepts include that the signs and ideas created within one language and one culture are translatable, or usable so that the other language could use the ideas and images in such a way that it does not seem like a translation but an original advertisement.

The advertisements used for discussion are by far not representative of the deluge of advertisements available, but are indicative of certain problems and how they are overcome.

Attitudes towards culture and advertising

Belgium is a small country (10 million people) with many nationalities represented, due to the presence of European Community employees. The major cultural groupings are the French and the Flemish, and a small German population on the eastern border.

The Flemish population speaks Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, but write standard Dutch. The Flemish culture and language (in the Netherlands) are under siege by all that is American. This influence has also infiltrated Flemish culture: many English words are incorporated into the language. The French (Walloons) are more resistant to such influences due to their affinity for France and the French culture.

In the advertising industry these cultural attitudes have to be accommodated and respected, otherwise the success of a campaign will suffer. Language is a very sensitive issue and thus treated with respect. Due to the fact that the Walloons and the Flemish resemble each other physically, and live in close proximity, advertisements have to use distinguishing qualities and characteristics to describe cultural differences such as dressing. This is the only visible difference between the two groups. The Walloons have a more sophisticated (French) way of dressing than the Flemish (Sophie Frére: 1997).

Belgium is a divided country, not only geographically but also politically and culturally. An interview with Sophie Frére, the Managing Director of Véridic advertising agency, revealed that one cannot speak of a unified Belgian culture because it does not exist. The only time when solidarity prevails is when a tragedy occurs, such as the death of the King. Social issues such as the paedophile scandal in Belgium also lead to some form of solidarity amongst the whole population. However, such sensitive issues would never be used in an advertisement. Advertisers would even shy away from using children in an advertisement which could be offensive. Religion also falls in this sensitive category.

Topics such as food and life styles are treated differently in advertisements for the two cultures: a regional context will be created for food products in each of the regions. The Walloons’ eating habits are similar to those of the French, whereas the Flemish people have created their own eating habits and preferences. For instance, the French would rather eat butter than margarine, whereas the Flemish population is more health conscious and would rather eat margarine. The people of Belgium see themselves belonging to either the Flemish culture or the French culture, but not to a united Belgian culture.

According to Bart Broodcoorens (1997), many advertisements are created for a multinational market and are thus not suited to the Belgian market (including both groups), the receivers’ frame of reference or cultural orientation. The influence of this tendency will be discussed in the course of the chapter.

Translation and language issues

The Belgian people feel very strongly about their language, whether it be French or Flemish. As a result advertisements are created and/or translated into these languages. In contrast to the situation in South Africa, there is no mixing of French and Flemish in advertisements. The average citizen would not even mix his languages in normal conversation. However, certain French words have crept into Flemish; this is not significantly the case the other way round, but English words are used in both French and Flemish advertisements. The onslaught on both these languages by English is enormous. The Flemish people accept it more readily than the French-speaking community.

Foreign influences

Like most languages, French and Flemish take vocabulary pertaining to new technology such as computer terminology directly from English. Very few own terms are created in French and Flemish, the reason being that English is a world language, and the language of media and film. Young people especially relate to film, media and technology and are thus familiar with English terminology. Thus when an advertiser wants to address the youth, English words and expressions would be used in a French or Flemish advertisement to attract their attention. The perception also exists that English is young, hip and exotic, as opposed to the familiar own culture and language.

The advertising campaigns for multinational companies and their products such as Coca-Cola are created in the USA. The brand essence has thus been established; advertisements would then be literally translated into French or Flemish. Few or no adaptations or cultural changes are made to suit the local culture.