Cultural sensitivity

As we analyze how audience and purpose affect the structure and content of texts (first learning outcome for Part 1), we come to realize the importance of culture. No one understands this better than advertisers, who construct different texts for different audiences. Multinational corporations, such as Ikea, Starbuck or McDonald’s are faced with the challenge of selling the same products worldwide, be it furniture, coffee or hamburgers. They must show cultural sensitivity in their ads.

In this lesson we will study several McDonald’s ads from various cultures. We will do this with an information gap activity, in which you must guess the origin of each ad. This will generate a discussion on our own cultural bias and create awareness for how cultural values shape our interpretation of texts (the final learning outcome for Part 1).

Guess the origin

You are going to view several McDonald’s ads from around the world. Guess the country from which each ad comes. Do not be afraid to discuss cultural stereotypes and prejudices. These ads may amuse you or disgust you. Make an inventory of your initial responses to the ads in the table below (see printable worksheet below). Explain why these ads work in some cultures but not in others.

 Cultural sensitivity and McDonald's ads

Reveal the origin after making an educated guessWhy these ads work in some cultures but not it others
Muslims may see something in this text that non-Muslims may miss: The French fries represent the fingers of hands that are praying.
In the West, people are very offended by the idea of a baby being 'branded', whereas others in the East often find this baby quite cute. 
For many cultures, the udder of a cow is not the most attractive object. When drinking a milkshake few people want to think about the cow's perspective. British viewers may be offended by the two udders sticking up like two fingers, which is an offensive gesture in ther culture.
South Africa
Talking about contraceptives is taboo in many cultures. Some people may be offended by this ad. Others may simply find it funny and daring. Keep in mind that HIV awareness campaigns are more common in South Africa than other, non-African countries. 
This ad may not work in the West, as cattle do not need to be found 'hip' to sell a hamburger. Beef consumption in China, however, is lower than in the rest of the world, which poses a problem for McDonald's that this ad tries to overcome.
Traditionally in the West, Ronald McDonald (the clown) is seen as a marketing tool that targets children. Turning the clown into a sexy model goes against this innocence. The tomatoes look like forbidden fruit.
This ad might not work in a country like the USA, where 'bigger' is often considered 'better'. Instead this ad showcases a cultural delicacy, the macaroon, which is typical of France and Luxembourg.  
United States
The Christmas tree is easily identifiable in the West, whereas someone from the East may have more difficulty identifying the symbol. For those who regard Christmas as a religious holiday, this could be seen as the trivialization of an important symbol.
United States
If you are not familiar with the culture of mothers packing sandwiches for children's lunch, then you will easily miss the meaning of this ad.  
Some people think that this is McDonald's attempt to appeal to a Jewish audience during Hanukkah. Jewish people, however, quickly see that there are not enough candles for this to be a Menorah. In Scandinavian countries there is a tradition of placing candles, often in this shape in the windowsill. 

10 McDonald's ads

Here are ten ads that you will need to fill in the table above. For each ad guess where you think it is from and write a personal response.

 10 McDonald's ads

1) Eid mubarak

2) McDonald's baby

3) The real milkshake

4) Free condiments

5) Skateboarding cow

6) Holding tomatoes

7) McCafe

8) Merry Christmas 

9) Nice try, mom..

10) French fries

Teacher talk

This activity touches on several important concepts that are worth exploring further. Concepts such as 'stereotypes', 'culture' and 'context' are not only key to Part 1, but to the whole course. Just as this lesson suggests that multinationals exercise cultural sensitivity in their ad campaigns, we too will want to exercise a certain level of sensitivity when analyzing various texts. 

Stereotypes, culture and context


While this lesson may have its merits for introducing concepts such as audience and purpose, there is a risk that we run when inviting students to play a guessing game with cultures and nationalities. That risk is that we begin to classify cultures into stereotypes. It is not enough to say an ad is 'typically French'. Rather we have to identify those cultural characteristics we associate with France and question how they are being exploited to sell a product. The McCafe ad, for example, seems to point to a small, dainty, traditional product that the French are proud of: the macaroon. What does the macaroon stand for? How is it contrasted with the stereotypical, American hamburger? How is the color of the McDonald's logo in this French ad (yellow on green) different from the traditional McDonald's ad (yellow on red)? Are there cultural values that we associate with these colors? Do we find green more sophisticated than red, which screams of commercialism? Does this mean that the French are more sophisticated than Americans? Is the macaroon more sophisticated than the hamburger? It's amazing how one simple choice of color or product can open up a conversation on how stereotypes are constructed in the media. It's recommended to deconstruct these the ads, challenge students on their cultural bias and have meaningful debates on stereotypes in the media.


What is culture? How do we see cultural values in these ads? First of all, we tend to adhere to two definitions of culture: 1) the shared values of a group, and 2) the art which a group holds in high esteem. The first definition is primarily relevant to our discussion of these ads. For example, some people are offended by image of the baby clown. What cultural value do these people have that leads to such a response? Could it be that they have an aversion to the notion of branded babies? Others find the baby cute. Could it be that their culture does not have this aversion to commercialism and overt branding? In brief, when discussing these ads, we should try to define which values are being conveyed and how these values are shared with their target audience. 

From a Language A: Language and Literature perspective, this lesson on the McDonald's ads raises another relevant question: To what extent are we supposed to be studying Anglophone cultures? Would the Chinese ad be considered inappropriate? The answer depends on what you want to achieve with these ads. If you are keen on discussing audience and purpose, then it is good practice to study how one product can be presented in 10 different ways. If you are keen on learning more about the Anglophone world then you could argue that not all of these ads are relevant. It is not recommended to write written tasks or conduct further oral activities on the Chinese ad. What is appropriate, however, is a discussion on how these ads from non-Anglophone cultures, expose our Anglophone cultural values. For example the Finnish udder and the Chinese cow draw our attention to the fact that we tend to disassociate the animal from the meal in the Anglophone world. We find it rather distasteful to depict the animal we eat. 


This lesson shows us the importance of the 'context of interpretation'. This term is key to understanding how meaning is constructed. A non-Muslim may have difficulty interpreting the French-fries in the 'Eid Mubarak' ad (they are the fingers of hands that are praying). A Scandinavian may feel that their tradition of placing candles in the window at Christmas time is being trivialized in the last ad (number 10). This brings us back to reader-response theory, where interpretation of the text is in the 'eye of the beholder'. It is nice if you can find more texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Contextually rich texts also lend themselves well to information gap exercises. In this lesson, we took away the element of culture/nationality in order to create a dynamic guessing game. You may want to experiment by removing elements of the text itself, such as the copy in an ad, or the headline above an article or an image that accompanies a text. This will automatically create discussion on the context of interpretation and the importance of the target audience. 

 Towards assessment

Further oral activity - This lesson could be given as a presentation, in which classmates guess the origin of the ads and a discussion ensues on cultural sensitivity. This same principle could also be applied to other multinational corporations, such as Ikea or Toyota. 

Written task 2 - Several of the prescribed questions for written task 2 are applicable to such an activity on McDonald's ads. This question may be explored in relation to several ads from various cultures. Be sure, however, to focus on Anglophone cultures.

  • "How could the text be read and interpreted differently by two different readers?"
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