Friday, February 3, 2012

Culture: A Small Word Makes a World of Difference

By Kaitlan Whitteberry 

Granola clinked into the porcelain bowl, piling itself into a small, staggered triangle. I splashed milk onto my cereal and took a seat for breakfast. The other 22 students on my study abroad slowly trickled into the room, a few frowning faces mirrored those still jet-lagged from our travels the day before. However, everyone seemed slightly giddy, as it was our first day in Prague! I smiled and took a bite of my granola thinking of the days ahead. But my thoughts were interrupted, and before I knew I was having a cultural experience.


The milk was warm. No, not in the sense that it had been sitting out too long, it was completely intentional. But not quite the cool creamy experience I had become accustomed to in the States. I gently pushed my bowl aside, yet greeted this first difference with anticipation that many more would join it. 

I was absolutely correct, and I couldn't help but think how this small variation completely alters how this product would be presented to consumers. We were on our way to McCann-Erickson, one of the media visits I was most interested in. I smiled and made eye contact with the Czech people as we passed them, something I normally do back home. I did not receive such warm responses. People glared back with irritated faces as if I was mocking them. I later learned through our speaker that Czech people are not usually friendly toward strangers, although family and friends are of the highest importance in their lives. These various differences in culture have direct impact on the type of advertising many agencies create. 


Our speaker at McCann told us the Czech people focus on the simpler things in life. One of the difficulties they face as an agency is striking the balance between keeping a brand’s image consistent while still appealing to the Czech people. 

Later that evening we went on out to eat as a group. We stumbled upon a quaint restaurant in Old Town, which seemed just perfect for our first European dinner. About half through dinner Jon noticed the peculiar artistic “photos” framing the walls around us. They were almost disturbing how sexually graphic they were, but nonetheless humorous as well. I later noticed that many of the ads in Europe, Prague included, contained sexual references. The United States also uses sex appeal in its advertising, but these ads were much more forward in their messages, in the sense that I believe Americans would not have taken positively to. 

Our group sadly said “sbohem” to Prague but gladly “bonjour” to Paris! Nicole and I decided to go out after dinner to treat ourselves to some gelato. We were seated and happily greeted by our waiter, whose mood shifted instantly once English left our lips. The stereotypical French attitude appeared in full-force when he learned that we only wanted to order dessert, and not a traditional four-course meal. I truly thought this man was going to stop serving us when I asked for tap water. I later learned that it is considered rude to not stay at dinner for more than one course, something that wouldn’t have given anyone a second glance in the States. The French take food and dining extremely seriously, which may attribute to the variety of advertisements I saw for food and wine, which to my knowledge emphasized passion and tradition. While none of them using any form of humor. I also noticed that no French restaurant had televisions, which I am assuming would be distracting from the eating experience. For them, meals must be given adequate amount of time to be fully enjoyed, which varies from the Czech people who only spend an average of 20 minutes per meal. As for our waiter, I still wonder what faces he would make if he saw the ads in America for food. Many of them focusing on speed and convenience, he probably would have just fainted right there!

Brussels was next on our agenda, where we were fortunate enough to meet up with Mizzou’s study abroad interns! While visiting the U.S. Media Hub one of our speakers touched on the difficulties of trading information between countries. Even going as far as so say “information is harder to get [from the Japanese people]…you have to have lunch with the PR guy six times before they will begin to start thinking about” giving you information. It is quite clear that in the states, interviews are much easier to obtain. While on our visit to Hill+Knowlton the same issue came up. The women assured us we understood the importance of being nice to everyone in a company, even the assistants, who influence what meetings are made. This networking technique is one part of public relations I found to be very similar to how it works in the US. Even though our schedule was tight in Brussels, we still found time to devour, what I consider to be, the first true Belgian waffles any of us have ever had. How could anyone not want to give interviews when these delicacies are around?

The last, and most enjoyable portion of the trip was spent in Rome, Italy, Where finally we weren’t the loudest and most stared at group in every caf√©. Our visit to Vatican Radio was also a highlight of the trip. Our lecturer informed us how “video actually didn’t kill the radio star” along with the importance of religion and tradition among the Italian people. Although, this isn’t hard to miss if one takes a look around.
I came across an ad for organic apples done by the Ogilvy agency in Rome. This ad is just a small example of how religion composes such a large portion of the Italian lifestyle, which in turn affects their product consumption and how advertising is done for their tastes. Italians are also known for being extroverted and boisterous, as were their print/billboard advertisements. Many of them used bright colors and rather striking imagery to capture attention. Even the airport’s ads sported scantily dressed women in suggestive positions. However, in their defense, they are competing with breathtaking historical sights and Rome’s overall idyllic charm. They must grab your attention somehow.


As our trip came to a close, we headed home with overweight suitcases, and many loving memories. We gained a fresh perspective on journalism, advertising, and the variations in culture. This experience will shape how I view my career and has only sparked more interest for travel. I hope that each and every one of us has the opportunity to find a way back to Europe someday.

Click here to contact Kaitlan Whitteberry.

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