The European Union is one of mankind’s most ambitious and intricate social projects. One is basically asking nations that have vastly different customs, concepts, and cultures to work and live as one people. I was curious about how this ‘One Europe’ doctrine has affected advertising in the region, and so I dug. I dug rather a lot. And what I found was this; intercultural advertising in the EU is characterized by the propagation and enhancement of cultural stereotypes; that is to say differences between countries are showcased in order to create impact. In a previous post we talked about topic-related code-switching (e.g. English for medical terms), and identity-related code-switching(to highlight a shared connection). Now I’d like to discuss a fascinating concept known as ‘language fetish’, which refers to the phenomenon that occurs when the utility value (information/content) of a language takes a backseat to its symbolic(effect/form) value.
*A bulk of the inspiration for this post came from the following article by Helen Kelly-Holmes: Bier, parfum, kaas: Language fetish in European advertising
An increasing number of global advertising campaigns treat Europe as a single entity, choosing pan-European platforms such as Eurosport and in-flight magazines. This blanket targeting leaves little room for culture-specific elaboration of the brand message. Hence languages, words and accents must serve as the shorthand for a host of associations.
Consider the Audi campaign used in the UK: Vorsprung durch Technik. In this case, the meaning of the slogan is irrelevant to the average Brit. What matters more is the mental model it activates. The German phrase Vorsprung… will invoke the culture-specific mental model (henceforth CSMM) associated with the Germans, which is one of efficiency and technically sound engineering. In this way, the code-switched language’s value is inherent, independent of its communicative value.
Conversely, Jaguar, the British car company, seeks to emphasize the English cultural competence of being the trustees of tradition. In its ads in Germany, Jag uses the slogan ‘Jaguar- Die perfekte Balance ziwischen Innovation und Tradition’. This helps emphasize the traditional aspect of Jaguar in an ad that is otherwise very German in its formatting, replete with detail and tech specs.
Brandcrafters seek to activate the CSMM’s that are beneficial to them, and code-switching helps them do this. The symbolic, connotative meaning becomes critical while the literal one that would be used in everyday communication is relegated to the sidelines. The author of the original article asks us to look at it in two ways; on the one hand communication, which is what facilitates cooperation and understanding, is being given less face time. On the other hand, the reason that language fetish happens at all is because the national stereotypes (both self and of others) are so similar across borders, suggesting at least the seed of a common identity.
And that’s a start.