Tag Archives: culture

“Rather comical, dude”: American vs. British humor- an academic perspective

humorancient

Just watched a captivating Salman Rushdie interview in which he repeats a telling quote on the difference between American & British comedy.

British comedy is based on the question “Wouldn’t it be funny IF?” whereas American comedy is based on the question “Isn’t it funny THAT?

American humor is up-front, expressly stated, with laughs readily available and reflection rarely required. Conversely, British humor requires a curious sort of patience. It unravels itself slowly, titillating the imagination. It requires relationship-building- a character or mannerism may not seem funny until its been expressed over time and in many situations. For these reasons, it’s more intimate, and more likely to strike a lasting chord. You might guffaw hard at Zohan’s antics now, but in 20 years, you’re more likely to remember Basil Fawlty and chuckle.

Sybil Fawlty: You’re looking very happy Basil.
Basil Fawlty: Happy? Ah yes, I remember that.

ant-sexyIt’s sort of like a supermodel’s bare bottom versus the same celestial clad in a slit mini-skirt. While it’s amazing to have the instant gratification of the former, one somehow yearns for the artful allure of the latter.

Amul: The butter, the raconteur: Best of ’08/09

Amul- the legendary Indian butter, has continued to churn out some amazing ads that capture the zeitgeist, from the Beijing Olympics to the US Presidential Inauguration. To see some of their earlier work and understand their brand philosophy, check out my last post on Amul.

So here we go, with the best of 08/09…

Tintin: Billions of billious barbecued blue blistering barnacles!

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80 years. 50 languages. 200 million copies. A 3D movie with Spielberg & Peter Jackson in the works. The creator of Tintin, Georges Remi alias Herge, must be a happy ghost.

The babyfaced reporter and his Shabaab (crew) captured the imagination of Europe and subsequently the entire Commonwealth. Herge relied on a  potent formula: Meticulous research into the geopolitical climate , mischievous illustration, good vs. evil, consistent rib-tickling and satire, and above all, glorious disregard for political correctness. Or, to be precise (a la Thompson and Thomson :)), “a political correctness that disregards glory.”

All sorts of stereotypes are supremely exaggerated; from a naked fakir sitting on a bed of nails to a wild Arab sheikh with a tiger as a pet and a penchant for whipping blondes. We’ve got the savant professor, the foul-mouthed drunken sailor with the heart of gold, and the opera diva.The illustrations play along- African slaves are drawn coal-black, the Asians have no eyes…These comics would never get past the back room if published today, but they are bloody brilliant, and I’m glad that they’re around.

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One more thing, the abuses in the book are….wait for it…..legendary! To make the book children-friendly but still stay true to his characters, Herge invented innovative non-swearwords used luxuriously by Captain Haddock. These include “ectoplasm!”, “Bashi-Bazouk!” “Patagonian Petticoat!“, and the most famous phrase of them all “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles (Mille Millions de mille milliards de mille sabords!)”. Wit combined with alliterative allure make Haddock’s abuses among the most famous comic book expressions of all time, right up there with Mr. Lodge’s “Egad!” and Obelix’s “These Romans are crazy!“.

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*The download link to the entire Tintin series, in PDF, here.

Enjoy the magic of the comics that inspired the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and so many others. Jump into the world of the boy-wonder reporter who became a global icon, so much so  that General Charles de Gaulle once quipped that his “only international rival is Tintin”.

Code-switching & branding: Pt. III- The Language Fetish

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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.

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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.

eu And that’s a start.

Code-switching & Branding:Pt.2- Mental Models

Angus Yamasaki

A previous post of mine talked about code-switching. I’d now like to go more in-depth into the branding opportunities it throws up, the mental models it activates, and the type of work dealing with this issue that’s currently out there.

An emerging field of research in business and cognitive science is mental models, which are mental representations of real or imaginary situations. These mental models shape perception, thinking, and importantly for brandcrafters, whether or not we woo wallets.

Previous research with biculturals (bilinguals who have internalized the cultures of both the languages they speak)shows that speaking/hearing a particular language activated distinct sets of culture-specific concepts, or mental frames. These frames include important aspects of their identities. Hence if brands want to tap into a particular cultural concept that would enhance the brand identity in the consumer’s mind, they would do well to try their hand at some code-switching. bilingual1

“When biculturals are processing information in English, certain conceptual features are activated, themselves priming other conceptual features and the words associated with them. Those conceptual associations form the mental frames that will influence biculturals’ self- and other-interpretations and subsequent behavior. ” (From the study)

*A fascinating study examined Spanish-English bilinguals and their response to various ads. One such ad for a resort hotel featured a woman sitting on top of a scenic cliff. The text of the ads and the subsequent interviews were either in Spanish or in English. The results showed that when the image and interview were in Spanish, subjects interpreted the woman as being independent and serene. However, in the English language condition, the participants interpreted the woman as being confused, indecisive, and lost.

carol-alt-bwconfused-puppy-bw

That is pretty revolutionary. Nothing changed, except for the language. And yet the entire ambience of the advertised product was transformed, as people’s perception of the woman in the ad changed.

Another thing to keep in mind is the power dynamic of the code-switching game. Studies have shown that when an ad is in the majority language (e.g. English in the US), and is code-switched into the minority language (Spanish), people tend to perceive the product as being negative. This is because the mental model of the majority language is one of power & prestige, while the mental model of the minority language speaks of disadvantage and foreignness. Sadly these mental models are magnified for members of the minority language culture.

In my cocina, I would never think of any other coffeemaker: Backfires, reduces product eval

En mi kitchen, nunca haria cafe con ninguna otra cafetera: Works well, increases +ve affect, boosts eval

So brandcrafters, let loose some languages and target those biculturals. Tap into the positive mental models and enhance the consumer’s brand perception. Yalla, Vamos, let’s move!

“The true artist has the planet for his pedestal; the adventurer, after years of strife, has nothing broader than his shoes”- The Bush shoe incident

A surprise visit by US President George Bush to Iraq has been overshadowed by an incident in which two shoes were thrown at him during a news conference. (BBC)

Muntadar Al-Zaidi’s attack was launched with the words “this is a farewell kiss, you dog”. He launched two size-10 shoes at Bush, who was swift enough to duck them. In the Arab world, showing someone the sole of your shoe is considered a grave insult. So this farewell gesture was a  sign of utter contempt for Bush.

Credit to W, he managed to pull some sheepish smiles after the incident. The comedy channels will have a field day with this after running dry since Obamamania.

Code-switching & Branding: Pt. I- 2 languages, 2 identities, ∞ Opportunity

code-switching-2face

Code-switching is a term that refers to the use of more than more than one language in conversation. An example of code-switching would be if I began speaking in English, et je continue en Francais, pero quiero para terminar en español. Contrary to what many think, code-switching is not a sign of limitation in one language that would require resorting to the other. Rather, it is a form of self-expression and ingroup behaviour. Code-switching is used by bilinguals/multilinguals when:

1.      A particular concept is better expressed in the alternate language, or when one wishes to reiterate a shared identity with the listener. For example, if an Arab and a Brit are discussing business, and the Brit is trying to close the deal, he may pepper his language with Arab phrases to express solidarity and develop a deeper personal connection. In many parts of the world, relationship-building determines whether deals are made or lost, and code-switching is a useful tool to do this.

2.      Academia and technology: The universality of these fields often means that English becomes the lingua franca. It is not uncommon to see professors in Latin America, Asia, and Europe speak in their native language during a social discussion and suddenly switch to English if a technical matter comes up.

3.      To convey humor. Many jokes are told in English, with the punchline being delivered in the ethnic language shared by the speaker and receiver.

Q:  What did the mouse say to the cheese?

A: A: Tu Cheez badi hai Mast Mast!

ratatouille

The answer is a line from a popular Hindi song, which means “You are my desire/Damn, you’re fine!” It’s a highly corny but very popular joke, and one that would be dished out only in the company of paisanos.

Brandcrafters, take notice. Multilingual speakers far outnumber monolinguals in the population. If you want to appeal to them on a deeper level, why not show them that you understand their mixed identity? In my next post, I’ll touch open aspects of code-switching that marketers need to understand, and look at the issues of mental models, language schemas, and current ads that attempt to tap into multilingual madness.

Polyglot tot

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I’m at the airport cafe, sitting close to a family with a young daughter. This whippersnapper is being bombarded with phrases in Arabic, English, and French.Sensory inputs galore, which should lead to greater brain plasticity, increased mindfulness, and a rich resume for the UN.

Here’s to multilingual madness…may your tribe increase!

Nonsense Trivia: John Doe & Friends

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Suspect: John Doe, 6′, armed and dangerous.

Names for our friend in various countries:

Arabia: Fulan
Argentina: Ningun Nombre
Australia: Joe Blow
Brazil: Fulano
Canada: G. Raymond
China: Pinyin
France: Jean Dupont
Germany: Hans Mustermann
India: Naamaloom
Israel: Israel Israeli
Italy: Mario Rossi
Jamaica: Jah D!
Russia: Ivanov Ivan Ivanovich
Scotland: Jock Tamson
Serbia: Marko Markovic

West Beirut

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Direction and Screenplay: Ziad Doueiri

Cast: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas, Rola Al Amin, Carmen Lebbos, Joseph Bou-Nassar, Liliane Nemri, Leila Karam, Mahmoud Mabsout

Language: Arabic, with English subtitles

*Warning: May contain spoilers, although I’ve attempted to make them cryptic

Synopsis (Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes)

It is Beirut, 1975. Tarek, Omar, and May are teenagers roaming the streets, listening to pop music and making super 8 films. School has been closed, and the city has been split into the Christian-controlled East Beirut and the Muslim militia-controlled West Beirut, where the teens live. They are forced to grow up faster in ways they had not expected as violence seizes the city and their worlds become smaller as parts of their familiar surroundings are suddenly declared “off-limits.”

***

O: “May, tell me, what do you think of Beirut?”

M: “Crazy”

O: “Very Crazy”

10 years after its release, West Beirut remains the freshest and most poignant war film that I’ve seen. Gripping performances combine with fluid camerawork and stirring music to create a very real experience; yet somehow the movie is nothing short of magical. Never has a movie better characterized the Arab mindset and sense of humor; through all the madness of war the protagonists do not lose their mischief, their joie de vivre, or their belief in Beirut.

Doueiri borrows from his personal experiences during the Lebanese Civil War to showcase the teenage Tarek’s emotional metamorphosis as the war draws on; from exuberance about freedom from school to the angst-ridden delights of first love to an all-encompassing sense of grief for the destruction of his city. Doueiri’s love for Beirut resonates throughout; in the opening sequence Tarek  drowns out the French national anthem by singing the Lebanese one through a megaphone to his adoring classmates. Simple visuals such as the bike ride to Zeytuni are stunning; I felt a rush of emotion and nostalgia as Tarek, Omar and May sped across Beirut’s boulevards to develop Omar’s Super-8 film. If this scene was so powerful to a non-Lebanese such as me, I can only enviously imagine what it would mean to a paisan.

mohamad-chamas

Colorful characters abound throughout, adding the belly-laughter and roguery essential to keep a war movie honest. Two women in particular deserve special mention. The first, the old harridan who hides her pain and disappointment at being shunned by her husband by being the nightmare of the neighbourhood; she churns out some of the most creative abuses I have ever heard (“Meet your maker and perfume your mouth before you talk about the South”). Arabic speakers will be thrilled- God, hellfire, mothers, sisters and carnage are invoked in equal measure. Umm Walid, the madam of the brothel is the other, loud-mouthed and arrogant, with a huge frame and a heart to match. She proclaims that her brothel is the only place where the divisions brought about by the war matter not ( At Umm Walid’s, it is Beirut, period!). Sadly, time will prove her wrong.

umm-walid

Technical finesse and theatricality aside, West Beirut is primarily about relationships. Ziad, the husband, whose love of the land overrides his rationality, has to deal with his beautiful wife Hala’s insistence that Beirut can no longer be home. You get a sense that their love will prevail through all, but the depiction of the challenges that they face as a couple is handled with panache. Hala leaves with Tarek after a heated argument with Ziad, but minutes later when she crashes the car on the way out, Ziad is there to welcome her back with a smile and hug . At the climax they share a rare cigarette and at her insistence, he strums the oud, the traditional Arab guitar. The father/son relationship is also evocative; Ziad and Tarek are always playful,  fencing and mock-fighting while discussing profound topics such as Lebanese identity and their future. However, the standout relationship is the one between Tarek and his chum Omar, an explosive yet caring imp. They are mischievous, omni-horny boys-grinning, cigarettes lit, American music blasting, exaggerated, flowery language, grandeur, public announcements, calls out to the prophet, gestural touching of the heart, head-slapping and at the core of it all, a deep mutual affection.

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Omar is portrayed by the irresistible Mohammed Chamas, whom Doueiri found in an orphanage, and he steals the show. Impulsive, foul-mouthed and street-smart, Omar initially resents May due to his fear that she will take Tarek away from him. Eventually though, they become an inseparable trio, with the battlefields of Beirut serving as the background for their compelling friendship.

Cross-cultural influences are felt throughout the movie. From the boys’ choice of phrases (“Finito, Capish?, You drive like Steve McQueen!”) to the music they choose to chill to (George McRae’s “Rock your Baby”), it all conveys Beirut’s cosmopolitan vibe. And yet the city’s soul is Arab, a point Doueiri repeatedly drives home. The magnanimity of Mo’alim Hassan, the smart-aleck humor of a man whose car has just been totaled , the handsy but completely heterosexual mischief between Tarek and Omar, it all serves to help us understand the Arab spirit. It’s a spirit that frustrates and enthralls, that cries and chuckles, and in the case of West Beirut, makes for a mesmerizing movie.

Hit-o-meter

Plot 7 Visual 8 Music 8 Acting 9.5 Direction 9 Entertainment 8.5 ‘Feel’ 10 Overall 9

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