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In a study of college students in the United States and China, Emily Gee and Lisa Cui found that fundamental cultural differences lead people to perceive advertisements in different ways.
In a study of college students in the United States and China, Emily Gee and Lisa Cui found that fundamental cultural differences lead people to perceive advertisements in different ways.


  Student researcher:

Emily Gee
Major: Political science and public relations
Minor: Environmental science
Year: Senior


  Student researcher

Lisa Cui ’11
Major: Political science
Minor: Communications

Students' funding source: Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF)



Ann Crigler
Political science


Mad Men’s Don Draper could learn a lesson from Emily Gee and Lisa Cui’s research.

The two USC Dornsife students conducted an independent study project in China and the United States to understand if culture determines how environmental advertisements are perceived and the factors that motivate campaigns’ viewers to action.

“With our majors covering political science, public relations, communications and environmental studies, we were both interested in how international communications affect environmental issues,” Gee said.

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 most impact.”

With guidance from Ann Crigler, professor of political science, Gee and Cui crafted questionnaires and designed focus groups. Previously, both students had worked with Crigler on a study of the media’s role in the 2010 California elections. Crigler’s own research focuses on how people understand and learn about politics from the news media.

Gee and Cui traveled to three universities in China to survey students and then returned to the U.S. and replicated their efforts at three universities in Los Angeles. While the students were in Asia, Crigler provided support from L.A., answering technical questions and e-mailing words of encouragement.

“Their work has been phenomenal,” Crigler said. “Their skill sets dovetail — Lisa has Chinese language skills and familiarity with the culture, and Emily has experience with content analysis research. They were able to bring that together in a very positive way.”

Crigler will share their work with other undergraduates as an example of research they can initiate. Gee and Cui are now analyzing their field data. They presented their project at the 2012 USC Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work and received the first place award in the social sciences category. In September, they will share their research at the American Political Science Association annual meeting. Their findings will be published in the conference proceedings.

“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.”

When presented with ads depicting a number of environmental messages — one in particular showed a melting planet Earth scooped into an ice cream cone — Chinese students gave “serious and proper” responses while American students generally answered more casually. (Many noted the ice cream cone image made them hungry.) When asked open-ended questions like “What does the environment mean to you?” Americans’ answers were diverse. In China, answers tended to come back in the same wording.

Undertaking the study was an important learning experience, said Gee, who will pursue a master’s degree in strategic public relations at USC and will focus on environmental nonprofits. “We proved to ourselves that we could work on a project of this magnitude if we are truly passionate about what we are doing.”

Return to Scholarly Symbiosis >


Read more articles from the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USC Dornsife Magazine