Cultural Values in Beer Advertising in the UK, the Netherlands and Germany
Presented at the Research Day, Intercultural Discourse Group, University of Luton , UK– July 2000
Available Online: http://dahl.at/
Is it possible to persuade consumers in different markets with the same advertising message? Will they
respond favourably? Or should the advertising message be customised to reflect local culture? This
question is one of the most fundamental decisions when planning an advertising campaign in different
cultural areas, and, not surprisingly, one of the most frequently discussed issues in advertising today.
One fraction in this debate emphasises that the world is growing ever closer, and that the world can be
treated as one large market, with only superficial differences in values (Levitt, 1983). In their view,
advertising and marketing can be standardised across cultures, and the same values can be used to persuade
customers to buy or consume the product. Another fraction is content with the fact that the basic needs may
well be the same around the world, however the way in which these needs are met and satisfied differs
from culture to culture. Any marketing (and advertising) campaign should, in their view, reflect the local
habits, lifestyles and economical conditions in order to be effective. In 1985, Woods et al. concluded in a
study of consumer purpose in purchase in the US, Quebec and Korea, that “important differences are found
in the reasons why they [the consumers] purchase products familiar to all three countries”.
Central to this debate, are two issues: The product position and usage within the culture of the market, and
the decoding of the advertising message. Both are, obviously, linked to some extend.
An advertising message encoded in one culture has to be decoded in another culture in the case of
standardised marketing. This process may be subject to severe distortions, as the receiver will decode the
message in his/her own cultural context. A standardised approach could hence run into the danger, that the
message will be unconvincing, as it does not meet the psychological “triggers” required to evoke a purchase
decision with the consumer. Given Woods et al. research , this appears to be a problem that marketers
should be clearly aware of.
In order to understand the decoding process in the target market, it will be essential to study the product
perceptions and reasons for purchase, as well as the product’s place in the target culture. An example of this
would include wine, perceived as a relative “special occasion” drink in most northern European countries,
however understood as an every day drink in most Southern European countries, where it is seen similar to
the beer’s perception in Northern Europe. To market a table wine as ” add a touch of luxury to every day”
(German advertising) would undoubtedly appear strange and possibly confusing to Southern European
consumers. Conversly, when advertising washing powder, consumers in both northern as well as southern
European markets may expect information on the effectiveness of the product to dominate the commercial.
As an increasing number of researchers has pointed out (Caillat & Mueller, 1996), that it is important not
only to study advertising in general, but to concentrate on differences in product categories in order to find
prevailing differences in advertising style and values. Caillat & Mueller (1996) themselves published a
comparison for beer advertising in the UK and the US, concluding that the “differences between British and
American advertising were significant, indicating that consumers of the two countries are currently exposed
to distinct styles of commercial messages based on different cultural values”. Equally, Cheng & Schweitzer
(1996), after examining Chinese and US television commercials, concluded: “We also found that cultural
values depicted in Chinese television commercials have much to do with product categories…”.
This paper focuses, like the Caillat & Mueller study, on the values portrayed in beer advertising. The
countries studied are the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, all of which posses a long tradition in brewing
and the consumption of beer. Equally, in all three countries, beer is similar in market positioning, i.e. it is
viewed as an every-day drink, consumed dominantly by males. No assumptions were made which values
were to be expected in any one country to be dominantly displayed in beer commercials, but all
commercials were studied a priori empirically to identify dominant themes. Additionally, the use of
humour and the occasion for product usage were recorded in all three countries.
The Market for Beer
Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in all three countries, and the per capita consumption is higher than
the European average of around 70 l /p.a.p.c.. In 1998, the per capita beer consumption was the highest in
Germany, with 127.4 l, followed by the UK, with 99.4 l and the Netherlands, with 84.2 l (World Drink
Trends, 1999). The beer consumption in all three countries has declined steadily over the last years. This
development has put additional pressure for effective marketing communications on the breweries.
Table 1: Evolution of beer consumption per capita in selected countries
Rank Country 1995 1996 1997 1998
1 Czech Republic 156.9 157.3 161.4 161.8
2 Republic of Ireland 138.6 145.4 152.0 150.5
3 Germany 135.9 131.9 131.2 127.4
7 United Kingdom 100.9 101.9 103.6 99.4
12 Netherlands 85.8 85.5 86.3 84.2
13 US 83.6 83.5 83.2 82.0
39 Italy 25.4 24.0 25.4 26.9
Litres p.c. / Source: World Drink Trends, 1999
Advertising for alcoholic beverages is heavily regulated in all three markets. In the UK, advertising of
alcoholic beverages is regulated by a self-imposed code of conduct of the Advertising Association, as well
as the regulations of the Independent Television Commission (for television). In Germany, the
Zentralverband der deutschen Werbewirstchaft and the Deutscher Werberat have published similar rules
governing the advertising on television. In the Netherlands, the Stichting Stuurgroep Reclame and the
Vereniging van Communicatie-adviesbureaus has also published appropriate guidelines. An overview of
the legal environment, and the restrictions imposed by these guidelines, is given in the table below.
The primary objective of this study is to determine weather or not the same advertising themes and appeals
are used in all three countries to persuade customers to buy (or consume) beer, and to identify the dominant
In order to achieve that objective, television commercials for beer have been collected in all three countries.
In order to minimise distortion, only advertising for beers originating from the country have been selected.
The commercials were recorded during March/April 2000 from the following television channels:
Table 3: Channels used for collection of television commercials
Country UK Netherlands Germany
During this time, a total of 25 unique television commercials were recorded: 9 for the UK, 6 for the
Netherlands and 10 for Germany. Although the population in this study is fairly small, it is hoped that the
results are sufficient to establish an exploratory overview of advertising appeals used.
The commercials were then qualitatively content analysed to establish the dominant appeal used in each
commercial. In order to be as open minded as possible, no list of expected appeals or themes were
identified prior to the analysis.
Once the dominant appeal used in each commercial had been identified, these appeals were combined to
form five categories of dominant appeals: friendship, sex, sport, tradition and relaxation.
The category friendship included all commercials that focused around drinking beer in a group of friends,
or with a friend, where the consumption of beer was depicted overwhelmingly as a social activity, or
implied as such.
A commercial was judged to use “sex appeal”, if it depicted members of the opposite sex making advances
towards the main character, if they spoke seductively or were dressed in a manner that may be interpreted
Sport includes all commercials that make a clear reference to sports of all forms, show main characters
involved in sporting activities or after sports.
Commercials focusing on the tradition of the brewery or the product, showed historic buildings or images
or were set in a historical background were judged to have “tradition” as the dominant appeal.
Finally, commercials showing the main character in a clearly relaxing situation, where the main character
consumed beer primarily as a way to unwind and relax ( mostly alone), were judged to use “relaxation” as
the dominant appeal.
Mueller (1996) reported a large number of British commercials used humour to advertise beer. In order to
see if this was equally true for Dutch and German commercials the use of humour was equally coded as
present or not present.
Alcohol commercials, particularly in Britain, have often been criticised that they imply that the
consumption of alcoholic beverages may enhance sexual attractiveness. In order to establish if this appeal
is used, special attention was given to the role of characters of the opposite sex to the main character(s) in
the commercials. This appeal is especially complicated to establish, particularly as the UK-code of conduct
rules this appeal out, and an open display of this appeal would lead to the suspension of the commercial.
However, as anecdotal evidence of this theme was evident, it was included in the study. If these characters
appeared to display any form of erotic symbol or gesture to the main character after or during consumption
of beer, or if their dress was found to be explicitly erotic in nature, the appeal was judged to be present.
This was particularly upheld if these characters were shown full screen. If they appeared merely as present,
alongside other secondary characters, this appeal was judged not to be present.
The occasion for product usage was also recorded. As Mueller (1996) described a significant difference
between the usage of beer in US- and British commercials, the product usage was coded using Mueller’s
coding procedure. This involved to scan the commercials for either regular (or every-day type) usage,
special occasion usage or usage not shown in the commercial.
Each commercial was analysed by a resident native of the country, and by the researcher, who is fluent in
all three languages. Each coder coded the respective commercials independently, and later conferred with
the researcher. All differences in coding were discussed, and finally resolved.
Humour was analysed by trying to identify a joke or some funny twist in the commercials, and was
classified as either present, or absent. Typical examples of humorous advertising include where the
commercial tells a funny story, uses irony or makes fun of typical situations. Humour dominated British
commercials, whereas it was more sparingly used in German or Dutch commercials.
Table 4: The use of humour
UK NL D
Used 88% 33% 10%
Not Used 12% 66% 90%
Occasion for Product Usage
The occasion for drinking beer was analysed by either being an everyday event, a special occasion or not
shown/inconclusive. An everyday-event included drinking beer in a pub, in a bar, while being with friends
or while watching television. A special occasion included drinking as a special reward or celebration. A
commercial was coded as “Not shown/inconclusive” if none of the characters consumed (or was about to
consume) beer, or no characters were shown at all.
Everyday-usage dominated the British commercials to a large extend, and also was dominant in Dutch
advertising, whereas it was relatively infrequently used in German advertising.
Table 5: Occasion for product usage
UK NL D
Everyday 77% 50% 20%
Special Event 11% 33% 40%
Not shown 11% 16% 40%
Each commercial was coded for one dominant theme, and those themes were then grouped into a list of 5
possible themes: friendship, sex, sport, tradition and relaxation.
Friendship and affiliation were the most dominant themes in both German and Dutch beer commercials.
Whereas 55% of British commercials were found to have some sexual appeal, none of the Dutch or
German commercials were found to use this appeal for the promotion of beer.
The link between sport and beer was highlighted only in the Netherlands and in the UK, it was however not
used in any German commercial.
A trend of advertising beer using the history and tradition of the beer or brewery was observed exclusively
in Germany, whereas beer was presented as a drink for relaxation in both the UK and the Netherlands.
Table 6: Dominant Themes
UK NL D
Friendship – 50% 60%
Sex 55% – -
Sport 22% 16% –
Tradition – - 40%
Relaxation 22% 33% –
The results clearly support the argument, that different values are used to promote the same product in the
three markets, and that different associations and techniques are used to convey the advertising message.
In the UK, the use of humour in advertising is a long standing tradition, and is also dominant in beer
advertising, with 88% using this feature. This result supports Mueller’s claim, that the majority of British
beer advertising uses humour to sell its product. In Germany, beer is not directly associated with humorous
advertising, and only 10% of the sample used humour. In the Netherlands humour was more frequent,
however it was less dominant (33%).
Equally in support of Mueller’s study is the result for the occasion for product usage. The every-day drink,
as beer is portrayed in British advertising, is clearly dominant, however it is less frequent in the
Netherlands (50%), and even in the minority in Germany. Although the portrayed product usage has little
in common with the real-life product usage, it demonstrates a desire to position the product differently in
the various markets. In the German market, beer consumption is depicted as a social phenomena. It goes
hand in hand with meeting friends, going out for the day or having a picnic, a day at the sea etc., where the
reunification of the friends is celebrated with a beer. Alternatively, beer is positioned to be a high quality
product with a long tradition. This appeal is unique to the German market, and can not be found in either
Dutch or British advertising. There may, however, be some explanation in the abolition of the
Reinheitsgebot, an antique law ensuring the purity of the beer, by the EU in the late 1980s. Although this is
certainly not the only possible explanation for the use of this particular appeal, consumers will understand,
that the beer in question is brewed in line with the regulation of the Reinheitsgebot. This theory is
supported by the fact that 3 out of the 4 commercials using this type of appeal state that they brew
according to the Reinheitsgebot.
In the Netherlands, the friendship appeal equally dominates the beer advertising. Beer is consumed with
friends – however much more in an everyday situation than in Germany. Equally, beer can be consumed at
home, even alone to relax – a depiction that is not at all used in German advertising. Another link found in
the Netherlands, and not used in Germany, is the link between beer and sport events, where beer is
consumed accompanying the activity of watching a game of football.
This appeal is however somewhat different from the sports-appeal used in the UK, where beer is positively
connected with either achievement in sports or as a “creator” of sport. Another appeal used in both the UK
and the Netherlands is display of beer consumption as a relaxing activity. However most dominant in the
UK is the use of female characters in beer commercials. A majority of beer commercials has at least one
female “main supporting character” (i.e. not actually the main, beer consuming, character – however
someone with a key role). Whereas there are virtually no female characters to be found in Dutch or German
beer advertising, or if so, they are depicted as just another person with no major impact on the advertising
as a whole, the female characters play a relatively dominant role in a majority of British commercials.
Nearly all female characters are lightly dressed or are depicted wearing tight dresses, and a majority of
them seems to be(come) attracted to the main character.
The results of this study have very clear limitations, particularly as the amount of data is extremely small.
Equally, only one dominant appeal per commercial was coded – whereas many commercials display a
number of appeals. Although some more clarification of the appeals is given above, the variety and
different flavour of certain appeals used should not be underestimated.
However, the results suggest, that anecdotal difference in advertising strategies is not merely a myth, and
clearly demonstrates that different values are used to promote the same product in three geographically
close countries. Clearly, such a clear difference may not be observed in all commercials for all product
categories, as beer is a culture bound product. However, differences in persuasion techniques and
advertising appeals are to be expected in a variety of product categories, whereas in others, there may be
little or no variation in appeals used. Further research is required to identify these categories, and more
clearly establish the appeals used.
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