Symbols to avoid like death

In her recently published book Designing Across Cultures, Bethesda, Md.-based designer/writer Ronnie Lipton provides counsel on advertising imagery for marketers targeting ethnic audiences. Following is her advice on avoiding symbols of death when advertising to the Asian community.

In her recently published book Designing Across Cultures, Bethesda, Md.-based designer/writer Ronnie Lipton provides counsel on advertising imagery for marketers targeting ethnic audiences. Following is her advice on avoiding symbols of death when advertising to the Asian community.

The fastest way to turn off your Asian audiences is to use funerary symbols in designs for the living. Many of the cultures’ superstitions deal with luck, and dying is considered exceedingly bad luck, so Asians use plenty of symbols to separate the living from the dead. They also use symbols to show special respect for the dead. For example, shooting stars, a positive symbol in Western cultures, are bad luck to Chinese, according to Cultural Insights, compiled by Kang & Lee Advertising. Other symbols of death and bad luck include colors and numbers, even the position of chopsticks.

…The thing about chopsticks

After a Chinese funeral, it’s customary to have a meal at which a place is set for the dearly departed. At that place, also according to custom, rests a bowl of rice containing upright chopsticks. And in traditional Chinese and Japanese homes, the same symbol might appear in a shrine to a dead loved one. The image doesn’t belong in any advertising message except one like this: InterTrend Communications, a Torrance, Calif.-based marketing agency that specializes in Asian markets, uses the image in a house ad to say it takes a cultural expert to avoid such sticky situations.

The ad’s degree of impact depends on the viewer. Audiences come in three varieties, Bill Halladay, formerly of InterTrend, said: the ones who aren’t bothered by such an image; the ones who think it should bother them but it doesn’t; and those who find the image so alarming, they won’t even look at it. (The third category included some InterTrend employees!) What determines an immigrant’s degree of sensitivity, Halladay suggested, may be when that person left home. Cultural images become ‘pretty much locked in time’ in a person’s consciousness based on the traditions in place at that time.

In one ad (from a different agency) that targets a Japanese audience, the tips of the chopsticks (the parts that touch the food) make contact with the table. Artist Noriko Hoge said a Japanese would not do that; it would be considered bad manners. The tips should be up. Another big taboo is crossing chopsticks. Parents severely reprimand children who do so by mistake. When Hoge came to the U.S. from Japan in 1990, she said she saw American women use chopsticks as hairpins to look like the kanzashi sticks geishas used in their hair. But here, she was shocked to see, the westerners often crossed them.

Flopped flap causes flap

And watch how you fold models’ kimonos! And you’d better watch it all the way through production. Even in a Japanese-American audience in modern times, sensitivities can reach deep. A community that will go unnamed here chose a photo of a kimono-clad young woman to promote a Japanese-American event. The woman properly wore her kimono with the left flap on top. No one noticed that the photo had been flopped – showing the right flap on top – until the image graced the full run of souvenir booklets, posters, banners and newspaper supplements. The members of the planning committee ‘blew a gasket’ and insisted on reprinting, said our source, a Japanese-American committee member who didn’t see the need for concern.

What was the big deal? The worst that happens with a non-Japanese flopped photo is that type – and wedding rings – loses its meaning or a hair part changes sides. But in Japan, only dead people are dressed with the right flap of the kimono on top. The community considers the incident so embarrassing that the person who told the story asked to remain anonymous so as not to identify the group by association. (As the source added, the need to save face is strong among Japanese people.)

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Colors to avoid like death

For many Asians, white is the funeral color, especially for funeral flowers. For Chinese audiences, black and navy blue also come with cautions. Black (unless it’s the logo color), especially used as a background, is taboo because it also may be worn to Chinese funerals, said Kendal Yim of Dae Advertising. (The custom, but not the taboo, holds true for Western cultures.) Also avoid showing a photo of family members or other living people in a black frame, another funeral custom, for Chinese as well as Koreans.

For Chinese audiences, navy blue’s no better than black, especially white with blue, Yim said, citing the custom of distributing white lanterns with navy blue lettering at funerals. Saul Gitlin of Kang & Lee also cautions against white characters on a navy blue background.

Even a seemingly harmless phrase like ‘thank you’ in the wrong form and colors can trip up the unwary. Vicky Wong of Dae Advertising mentioned an ad from a major telecom company in which a single black Chinese character that means ‘thank you’ covered two-thirds of the white page. ‘Big no-no,’ she said, because that’s a sign you hang in a funeral parlor to thank the guests for coming, and it’s the only time you’d put the word in one character. For nonfuneral uses, it’s two characters and never in black.

Deadly symbols

Symbols to avoid because they signify death:

* Chinese: shooting stars, upright chopsticks, odd numbers, 4, seven serving dishes, red ink for personal letters, white handkerchief, clock, watch

* Korean: chrysanthemums, red ink for names of the living and for personal letters

* Vietnamese: three people in a photo, white handkerchief

* Japanese: kimonos folded with the right flap on top, upright or crossed chopsticks, even numbers, 4, red ink for names of the living and for personal letters, white handkerchief

Excerpted from Designing Across Cultures © 2002. Used with permission of HOW Design Books, an imprint of F&W Publications Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available at most bookstores.