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


Television and cinema advertisements produced a few interesting insights into translation possibilities of persuasive advertisements in this medium. The winning entries in the 1996, 1997 and 1998 Loeries Awards were viewed.

A few insights emerged: the advertisements have a very strong leaning towards signs in various black cultures (including characters, language, behaviour and setting); some advertisements cut across cultural barriers by focusing on emotions and situations which all South Africans can relate to; and some advertisements used mainly visual material and very little or no text.

Some advertisements can be translated, others not. The biggest constraint is that the visual material has to stay exactly as it is, only the text can be translated. In some instances where all the signs (such as in advertisements depicting a black culture) point towards a specific cultural/ethnic group, translating should not take place, because it would be contrived. In some instances this is already happening on television in South Africa: advertisements have a certain cultural context, but the language used is English, which jars with the rest of the signs.

Night game

The product being advertised is Standard Bank’s Cricket Development Trust. The context of this advertisement is a township or low-income residential area where black and coloured people live. The scene is set with children walking in the street, and a saxophone rendition of the song "When the saints go marching in" is playing. Different boys are shown, saying their names, for instance Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald. They pretend to be well-known South African cricket players. They start playing, while the neighbours look on. As it gets darker, the street lights come on. When it becomes totally dark, the mother calls the children to come home. Very little dialogue (text) is used, but the climax is when one little boy says that it is a day-night game, implying that they should be left to complete their game.

In a translation situation, the signs will stay the same, expect for the linguistic signs (the language). This advertisement cuts across any cultural barriers because adults and children alike from all cultures in South Africa can relate to the aspirations of the children who want to become famous cricket players. The text could be translated literally because there is very little text, and no specific cultural references are made. The written text that appears at the end of the advertisements can also be literally translated.


This advertisement features the super-model Naomi Campbell who sings the virtues of Sales House clothing. This is an example of an advertisement that should not be translated, and for all intents and purposes could not be successfully and semiotically translated. The advertiser, Sales House, targets black consumers in South Africa, which is reflected in all their advertisements, no white models are ever used. The text is in English. If this advertisement is to be translated, two problems will arise in terms of credibility and creating dynamic equivalence. The gist of the message is that Naomi is a citizen of the world, she identifies with Africa, its culture and consciousness and therefore wears Sales House’s clothes. She is, however, a British citizen. If the text were translated into any language, the credibility of her words would be lost. The only solution would thus be to use sub-titles, but keep the original voice in English, in the background.


The product being advertised is Savannah, a light alcoholic beverage. It is difficult to determine the cultural context of this advertisement because both characters speak English but the background music is French. Again very little text (linguistic signs) is used. The visual signs are very strong and thus the text plays a lesser role in the advertisement, except for the climax that could not take place without it. The climax is when the man asks the barman for a cold Savannah, after having witnessed all the tricks the barman performed before giving it to him. The text could be literally translated because it makes no cultural references or allusions. This advertisement could appeal to people across cultural barriers, partly because of not being culturally anchored and also due to the dry humour used (a subtle allusion to a characteristic of the product).


The advertisements discussed represent a fragment of all the advertisements in existence in South Africa, but cover the most important trends and techniques being used. These advertisements are probably the most commonly shared texts around and so they offer the closest thing we have to a shared public discourse. They represent attitudes and desires; and dramatise the voices of society in which they occur. The South African society is still very fragmented due to political and social differences, and will probably always be. Advertising budgets are shrinking, and less money is made available for translating advertisements or creating them in different languages and cultures. As a result more advertisements, especially on television, will be made in English or will use very little text and mostly visual and audio elements.

Creators of advertisements will have to be made aware of and sensitive to signs in different cultures and the meaning they generate, as well as to the context in which they are used. In the course of the research process, it has become clear that advertisers are not sensitive to the different cultures in South Africa. It often appears that advertisers think that if an advertisement appears in a specific language, such as Afrikaans or Xhosa, the culture is automatically reflected and incorporated. This is not the case: language is just one of the signs in a much broader cultural context.

Without any constraints, such as money, all persuasive advertisements can be translated to achieve a dynamic equivalent in a target language and culture. In the case of television advertisements where the original advertisement has to be retained in order to save money, a dynamically equivalent translation would not always be possible, because both the text and the context (which forms the discourse) cannot be changed.

One can only hope that advertisers become more aware of the differences between cultures and then find a way to unify these differences in persuasive advertisements, to touch the hearts of the consumers whom they want to part with their money.