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Aradhna Krishna
  Aradhna Krishna

Not Lost in Translation

2/20/2009 --

Ross professor shows how companies should craft ads in bilingual countries.

ANN ARBOR—Advertisers pushing products in bilingual countries generally focus on how best to turn a phrase or coin a slogan. But they should be spending time determining the actual language that best suits their product, according to new research by Ross School of Business Professor Aradhna Krishna.

"Language Choice in Advertising to Bilinguals" is one of the first studies to explore the consequences of language choice in commercial campaigns. Krishna, the Isadore and Leon Winkelman Professor of Retail Marketing, developed the research agenda as she noticed international firms selling more and more products around the world -- and being exposed for the first time to bilingual (and even trilingual) consumers. Companies advertising in India, for example, might speak to customers in Hindi or English -- or a mixture of the two.

"So I'm asking, what happens in terms of advertising when you enter these countries?" she says. "For the multinational company, the choice of language might be extremely important for positioning the product."

One seemingly logical option would be to mimic the ads of local companies that have advertised in that country for years. But that would be the wrong option, according to Krishna's research, which is co-authored by Rohini Ahluwalia of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers found the choice of language in advertisement matters greatly for a multinational company in a bilingual country, but the same is not true for a local company. The language choice also depends on what type of product is being sold.

It turns out consumers in bilingual countries such as India, where many citizens speak both Hindi and English, become keenly aware of language when the message comes from an offshore company. In general, expectations regarding language come from perceptions of the speaker's background. So if a multinational company uses any amount of Hindi in an ad slogan, "consumers will likely direct their attention to the implications of the language used," the researchers found.

For local companies in a bilingual country, consumers expect to see ads produced in the local tongue, English, or a mix of the two languages. It has little impact on the ad's effectiveness.

So what's the right choice for a multinational company? That depends on what they're selling, Krishna says. Her studies on college students in India showed that English ads worked well for luxuries, whereas ads with Hindi and English scored well for necessities such as soap. That's partly because English has an association with sophistication while Hindi is associated with "belongingness."

"Both things affect language use: the kind of company doing the advertising, and the kind of product," Krishna says.

The findings suggest that using the local language, for a multinational company, would backfire if used to advertise luxury goods. While an ad using only the local language may work for advertising a necessity, multinational companies should play it safe and use a mixed-language ad. That's because the mix of languages would not draw excessive attention to the language choice. And some products aren't clearly luxuries or necessities, making the mixed-language ads the best bet.

Although the study was performed in India, the associations with language and product seem applicable across the globe, Krishna says. The paper notes that English versus the local language has similar connotations in Japan, Korea, Germany, and Singapore.

Krishna is extending this line of research by now studying the effects of a particular script in ads. In India, for example, ads in the Hindi language often are printed in Roman script instead of Devanagari. In Russia, where the Cyrillic script is used, Russian language ads sometimes are printed with Roman characters.

"When things like this happen, how does the choice of script make a difference?" she says. "I've already started doing the research."

—Terry Kosdrosky

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,