Crest’s B.C. backlash could have been avoided

It's not just what you say, it's where you say it

P&G in limbo with ethnic lingo

Meghna Srinivas runs MacLaren McCann’s multicultural practice in Toronto and was a judge of the multicultural categories for the 2014 Marketing Awards.

P&G launched an out-of-home campaign for its Crest line of dental hygiene products in Richmond B.C. last month that targeted Chinese-Canadians. While the ad, written entirely in Chinese script, is not offensive in any way to non-Chinese viewers, it generated some backlash from a few residents and reignited the debate over the choice of language on signs in the region and across Canada.

While marketers can never truly account for racially motivated reactions, is speaking a niche language in a public space truly the most efficient way to spend media dollars, particularly in a market endowed with a healthy selection of ethnic media properties?

Canada has come a long way. Few countries can claim a fulfillment of the “multicultural dream” as fully as we can. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in Canada’s massive Chinese population – a growing market with strong spending power and an equally well-developed Chinese-Canadian media industry.

TV, print and online outlets such as Fairchild, TalentVision, A1 Radio, Sing Tao, Ming Pao, The Chinese News, CReaders.net and 51.ca are thriving media platforms within the community. They allow marketers to connect with a specific audience without wasting media dollars on audiences that can’t understand non-English ads, while also ensuring that the larger community does not feel alienated by our message.

So what was P&G’s motivation to use mainstream outlets that spill into a majority non-Chinese viewership? If the aim was to cut through clutter and resonate with the target in a public space, there is a slight disconnect in P&G’s strategy.

As I have experienced firsthand, Canada is great at making immigrants feel at home. I still remember the comforting feeling when I read “Welcome” in my mother tongue (Tamil), amidst a pool of multi-lingual welcome messages at Pearson International. That sense of warmth would be rekindled every time I found convenient access to Bollywood entertainment or Indian spices in Toronto. For immigrants that call Canada home, that sense of familiarity is invaluable and being spoken to in a language they understand is always appreciated.

At the same time, however, it is equally important to evaluate the appropriateness of where we speak to consumers in their language. If Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” is believed, where you engage consumers ought to be as important as what you say to them.

At home, amongst family, I choose to speak in my first language. But I wouldn’t be as comfortable if a stranger walked up to me at work, or in a public space, and decided to communicate with me exclusively in Tamil.

What’s the assumption here? Is it that I have a limited understanding of English? Or that the easiest way to get my attention is to scream in my mother tongue (thus rendering all non-Tamil speakers confused and excluded)? According to data from the City of Richmond, though 45% of its population is of Chinese origin, only 10% of the city cannot speak English. Given that, wouldn’t using a blend of English and Chinese be more representative of the target’s community? It could, for one, have neutralized the exclusionary tone that fuelled the backlash in Richmond.

Furthermore, media such as bus shelters are typically more relevant when non-English ads are a public service announcement. But if out-of-home was the medium a marketer was determined to use for commodity goods/services, then the targeting can be more specific.

Placing Chinese-only ads on transit shelters in Chinatown, instead of, say, all of Markham, Ont. (a community where many Chinese-Canadians live alongside people of other ethnicities), is one acceptable strategy to choosing in-language, out-of-home placements. Canadian Chinatowns and areas such as Toronto’s Gerrard Street India Bazaar are often visited purely for the authenticity of the experience. Seeing an ethnic-language-only ad there would not offend other groups.

Advertising in mainstream mass media can sometimes be the right business decision for a multicultural marketing agency. But for marketers trying to target specific ethnic groups, the more effective strategic choice is usually to use the media channels designed for that very purpose.


CBC’s April 23 report “Language debate reignited in B.C.”

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