Cross-cultural differences in controversial humor

International Humor Group

International Humor Group (from left to right — Jiaorui Jiang, MC Curran, and Katie Potter)

Why should you pay special attention to not offend anyone in global advertising?

June 23, 2015 | Jiaorui Jiang

Previous international marketing research has shown that marketers for multinational corporations need to think global but act local. The current research demonstrates that marketers need to pay special attention to local context in different cultures because some countries can be offended by things other than sexism and racism.

Reebok adIn 2015, advertisers are expected to spend $592.43 billion, an increase of 6.0% percent from 2014 (eMarketer, 2014). Recently we’ve seen an increase in the amounts of controversial and offensive ads in global advertising, because more advertising agencies are trying to become more creative in order to gain attention and brand awareness (Waller, 1999). A controversial ad can be very successful with increased sales in the marketplace, or very damaging, generating negative publicity, falling sales, and product boycotts (Waller, 2004).

The growth and interconnection of international market places has brought about the need for global campaigns and cross-cultural approaches (Hatzithomas, Zotos and Boutsouki, 2011). According to Hall (1976), different countries can be distinguished on their different styles of communication. In high-context countries, including much of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America, where interpersonal relationships are emphasized, words are not as important as the context in which communication takes place. The context can include the speaker’s tone of voice, facial expressions, hand and body gestures, and even the person’s family history and status. In low-context countries, including North America, Australia, and much of Western Europe, communication tends to be more direct and linear. Communicators in these countries are expected to be straightforward, concise, and use language with precision.

monks adFor our research on the effects of cultural differences on advertisement offensiveness, we conducted Google searches in both Chinese and English and found 25 print controversial ads for the countries: USA and China. Based on the categorization of reasons for offensiveness developed by Waller (2004), we developed a 9-category coding system for why the ads are considered offensive. We used two native female coders from each country to code why they think anyone would consider the ads as offensive. We then collapsed the 9 categories into 3 larger themes: advertisements offensive for local, general, and global reasons. The local category consists of ads that are culturally insensitive, the general category consists of ads that go against social values acknowledged across many cultures or goes against religious values. The global category consists of ads that would be considered offensive globally, such as racist, sexist, and disrespectful to special populations.

ads resultsWe achieved an 80% agreement among the coders, and found a statistically significant difference between the two countries on why ads are considered offensive, χ²=8.15, p<0.05.

The results are consistent with the previous literature that there are inherently offensive themes across cultures, and confirmed our hypothesis that

    • in high context culture countries (China), ads are more likely to be offensive because of culturally specific reasons
    • in low context countries (U.S.), ads are more likely to be offensive for global reasons.

One interesting observation we noticed while conducting of our research were the individual differences in the perceptions of offensiveness with coders from the same country. In most instances, controversy usually arises even when only one specific group of people find the advertisement offensive. Future research could address the roles of individual differences, such as gender and age, and how these differences interact with cultural background on the influence of perceptions of offensiveness.

print ad v internet graph


In addition, print advertising is shrinking in the age of globalization (Meeker, 2012). Future research could examine internet advertising and other new media formats to determine if our findings generalize to these new marketing and advertising technologies.




eMarketer, (December 10, 2014). Advertisers will spend nearly $600 billion in advertising in 2015. Retrieved from

Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press.

Hatzithomas, L., Zotos, Y., & Bousouki, C. (2011). Humor and cultural values in print advertising: A cross cultural study. International Marketing Review, 28 (1), 57-80.

Meeker, M. (May 30, 2012). Internet Trends. D10 Conference. Retrieved from

Waller, David S. (1999). Attitudes towards Offensive Advertising: An Australian Study. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 16 (3), 288-294.

Waller, David S. (July 2004). What factors make controversial advertising offensive?: a preliminary study. ANZCA04 Conference, Sydney.