When you look at an advertisement, how does it make you feel? Don Draper of AMC’s Mad Men could be five cocktails in and still wax eloquently on advertising’s myriad abilities. But Draper’s reactions to various ads are certainly influenced by the ’60s New York City culture in which he lives. Like everyone else, he brings his own background and experiences into the process of deciphering advertisements.
So does our culture really determine how we respond to ads?
This was the question that Lisa Cui and Emily Gee set out to answer, and they could teach ad guru Draper a lesson or two with what they found.
During Summer and Fall 2011, the two USC Dornsife students conducted an independent study project at six universities in China and the United States to determine whether culture determines how environmental advertisements are perceived. They examined how Chinese and American students responded to both negative and positive advertisements, and whether their perceptions affected their actions.
Cui, who was born in China, graduated in December 2011 with a degree in political science and a minor in communications. Gee, who is half Chinese and half Swedish, is a senior double major in political science and public relations with a minor in environmental studies. Working with Ann Crigler, professor of political science, they fused their diverse interests to design the unique research project with a grant from USC Dornsife’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF).
“Their skill sets dovetail — Lisa has Chinese language skills and familiarity with the culture, and Emily has experience with content analysis research,” Crigler said. “They were able to bring that together in a very positive way.”
Cui and Gee approached Crigler with their idea after taking her class on the media’s role in the 2010 California elections.
“We were interested in how international communications affect environmental issues,” Gee said. “We wanted to see if the response to ads could be bound by a society.”
China is growing so quickly that concern for the environment is not always a priority, Cui explained. “If we understand how Chinese people feel about the environment, then environmental ads can be tailored to appeal to Chinese emotions and make the greatest impact.”
Under the guidance of Crigler, who studies how people learn about politics from the news media, Gee and Cui crafted questionnaires and designed focus groups. They also examined various Chinese and American ads to determine which ones would be selected for the study.
For the first part of their research in Summer 2011, Cui and Gee traveled to three universities in different areas of China to survey about 200 students: the metropolitan Peking University in Beijing; the rural Jiangnan University in Wuxi, near Shanghai; and the Jilin Arts and Science Academy in Changchun, a media school in Northeast China.
Cui and Gee presented their focus groups with several environmental ads. The respondents rated on a scale of one to five their emotional responses when looking at each ad, and were given a series of questions about the environment to gauge their reactions based on the same ad.
The advertisements included those from both China and the U.S., with all text removed to prevent the focus group members from identifying the country of origin.
To encourage free-form discussions, Cui and Gee presented the Chinese students with Monopoly money, and instructed them to work as a group and distribute funds among the economy, environment and education.
“The students in Beijing were more open with their opinions about the environment,” Gee said. “The students in Wuxi were hesitant to participate. It was difficult to get them to talk.” She suggested that this difference was due to the cosmopolitan and modern versus rural and traditional nature of the two schools.
The pair learned there were limits to what they could ask. When they wanted to ask students about their views on their government, a teacher in Wuxi told them those questions were not “harmonious” with the other queries, so they could not include them.
Cui and Gee were surprised with their results from the Chinese focus groups. “We asked basic questions like, ‘What does the environment mean to you?’ and many of their answers came back with similar wording, like ‘I am just one person, but I can affect the people around me, like tiny drops of ocean it will eventually affect change,’ ” Gee said. They attributed this result to widespread government messaging in education in China.
“But Professor Crigler reminded us that people in the U.S. say things like ‘think green’ and ‘save the planet,’” Gee said. “So is this something we can attribute to the government, or is it just another societal trait?”
In between their research trips, Cui and Gee had time to visit the Great Wall of China, experience Chinese taxis, and explore the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In Fall 2011, Cui and Gee replicated their efforts at three universities in Los Angeles: USC, UCLA and Loyola Marymount University.
They noted that back on their home turf, they didn’t need Monopoly money to get conversations flowing. “In China, we needed that element to get people to disagree, but in the U.S., that happened automatically,” Cui said.
As they predicted, the American students’ reactions were vastly different than their Chinese counterparts.
One advertisement illustrating global warming presented to students in both countries depicted a melting planet Earth scooped into an ice cream cone. In their written responses to the ad, Chinese students gave “serious and proper” answers such as, “The ice cream cone melting is like the melting of our ice caps in global warming.” American students answered more casually, with many noting the ice cream cone image made them hungry.
Another ad featured a pristine white-sand beach. While the American students had no trouble identifying with the ad, some Chinese students were confused. “It didn’t dawn on us until we went to China, but the respondents thought it was a desert,” Gee said. “Beaches like that aren’t as common there.”
When ranking their emotions on a scale of one to five, the Chinese students were much more likely to select a one or a five, while Americans were more likely to select a number in the middle.
“We initially thought that the differences in reactions would be due to the ads themselves,” Cui said. “Now it seems that there are just fundamental cultural differences that lead people to perceive ads in different ways.”
While the students were in Asia, Crigler provided support from L.A., answering technical questions and e-mailing words of encouragement.
“Their research speaks to how emotions in persuasion and ad campaigns can work cross-culturally,” Crigler said. “And that has huge ramifications, because it may be that we really need different kinds of emotional framing in different countries.
“By looking cross-culturally, the students began to question the universality of emotions.”
Crigler said she will share the work with her undergraduate students as an example of research they can initiate.
Cui and Gee presented their findings this spring at USC’s Undergraduate Research Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work and won first place in the social sciences category. They were also named 2012 Discovery Scholars, USC’s honor for students who excel in the classroom and demonstrate the ability to create exceptional new scholarship.
They will travel to New Orleans in September to present their paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Their findings will be published in the conference proceedings.
Undertaking the study was an important learning experience, said Gee, who will pursue a master’s degree in strategic public relations focusing on environmental nonprofits at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
“We proved to ourselves that we could complete a project of this magnitude if we are truly passionate about what we are doing.”