Cultural language vs. cultural meaning

I’ve often compared cultural phenomena to an iceberg or an oilrig. It’s the very familiar analogy that illustrates how what you see is a small representation of what there is. Language is another simple way of illustrating this concept.

When I say ‘man’, the simple word carries far more meaning. On the surface we see a simple, three-letter word but, below the surface, we find positive connotations (strong, big and brave), negative connotations (violent, short-tempered and single-minded) as well as neutral (blue, car, sports). These connotations guide our narratives.

On the surface vs deeper understanding

Advertising can choose to build either upon the simpler, on-the-surface language or leverage a deeper understanding of trends and culture. I don’t believe that there is necessarily a right or wrong when it comes to focus. Instead of right or wrong, I tend to ask: “Does it work, or does it not work?”

Sometimes, it works to simply call an offering ‘man-sized’ or any similar reference to stereotypical masculinity. Other times, you need to dig a bit deeper and find out what masculinity means in the local culture and where it’s going.

My masculinity example here is straight-forward but in real life, the lines get blurry. When Ram Trucks aired “When God Made a Farmer” at the 2013 Superbowl, there was no question as to which side of the spectrum it was flirting with.


The stereotype of the God-fearing American farmer is so well-known that, even here in South Africa, I knew exactly what I was looking at. And if you didn’t know the voice of Paul Harvey, you would at the very least have heard a voice like it: the Middle American preacher who, through poetic rhetoric and repetition, gets his congregation to nod in agreement. Between the visuals, the narrator’s voice and the story told, it is clear that Ram knew exactly who it was talking to.

The commercial was beautifully executed, with some incredible yet simple visuals, striking a great balance between modern photography and a slower, more conservative world. Under closer inspection, however, it became clear that it simply looted the language or signifiers of the church. It took what stuck out above the water and used it for the Ram brand.

And how do I know this? Simply because the Christian Bible mirrors the seven-day week (making the 8th day a RAM creation). The creation story also reads that God only made two people. If you strip the tone of voice and mesmerising visuals away, you are left with nothing, really.

But which brand has gotten religion right?

Wieden+Kennedy produced a real tearjerker for Nike’s “Designed to Move” campaign. At face value, it has no resemblance to religion and I doubt that even the strategy documents would have anything pointing to anything more than the fact that Nike is designed to move. So why do I think it got it right?

Alain du Botton argued that religion (among other things) serves as a framework that reminds us of our best selves. When life tries to lure us into dark corners, we need religion to pull us back to the rules we decided upon when we were sober, in good spirits and in religious company. The actual content of the rules will depend on which particular brand of religion you subscribe to, but serving as a moral compass is a common function for product category.

In the “5 Extra Years” ad, Nike reminds us of our better selves. We are designed to move. Being in motion, being healthy, playing in the parks and enjoying a physical life are (according to Nike, in this case) our best selves.


This is a long-term strategy. To take it back to the iceberg analogy, Nike is creating a massive iceberg under water with the belief that it will surface with deep cultural meaning.

True to a long-term vision, Nike has taken this ‘better self’ idea further. The Possibilities commercial does exactly the same, pushes you to be your best self. This is, however, not so much part of a strategy but rather part of the brand’s DNA and a way of seeing the world that is executed in different ways.

With the latest “Made of Black” ad, Guinness shifted from long-term, under-the-surface work to shorter-term above-the-water stuff. The “Made of Black” commercial is visually appealing and ticks every swag-box I can think of. It’s a montage of what it means to be cool in Africa today and does so to the tune of Kanye West’s “Blkkk Skkkn” Head. It’s a sensorial assault and you’re blown away by how cool it is here in Africa.


But, as with the Ram ad, “Made of Black” quickly becomes surface-level communication once we interrogate the message. If we remove the dancers, the music and all the smoke and mirrors (literally) and look at the message on its own, it feels empty: “Black is not a colour, it’s a rebellious mindset”, followed by a wall of global and universal achievements (artists, models and musicians).

This would not be disappointing if the brand did not come from somewhere deeper. Earlier this year, it featured the Sapeurs: a group of gentlemen in Brazzaville. These dandy men dress the way they do as a celebration of peace, respect and human dignity.


At face value, the Sapeurs seem to contribute little to a modern, forward-facing Africa. It looks as if they cling to a colonial past, and some even argue that this commercial shows how the psyche of Africa has been damaged, creating a sort of continental Stockholm syndrome. The reality, however, is that Africa is a mentally healthy continent.

It does have a history of colonialism, which would have left a mark. Cultures cannot help but rub off on each other, and a European influence would be conspicuous in its absence. But these men did to European clothing what ’90s pop culture did to the word “cool”. It now very seldom refers to temperature and is far more often associated with some or other state of contentment.

Africa is modernising at a staggering speed, often leapfrogging European and American technologies. Modernisation is, however, a unifying phenomenon. By this I don’t mean to say that Africa is turning into Europe. Instead, I like to believe that the ubiquitous nature of smartphones (and other recording and sharing technology) and the rapid increase of connectivity are closing the gap between cultures.

Local take on global values

The “Sapeurs” commercial plays to this phenomenon. It looks at a local take on global values and at how a subculture in Brazzaville contributes to a modern, global world. It celebrates a forward-facing, modernising Africa and works hard to show a unique, Congolese take on universal global values (peace, respect and dignity).

“Made of Black”, though, takes relatively universal achievements from Africa and attempts to carve them from global culture and make them ‘black’ (the state of mind, not the colour). It’s potentially divisive and, given the history of the brand, I would say, disappointing.

Guinness, Ram and Nike aside, the phenomenon of digging deeper to find patterns, narratives and stories — as opposed to understanding the visual language on the surface — is worth noting. To say that one is worse than the other would be similar to calling a hammer superior to a screwdriver.

It’s more a matter of understanding the nature and life stage of your brand, as well as the challenges facing your organisation from a business point of view.

Originally written for MarkLives