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The Culture Code

One of the most interesting books about marketing, written from an anthropological perspective, is Clotaire Rapaille’s The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. Rapaille is a French anthropologist, psychoanalyst, and marketing consultant and his notion that culture codes shape people’s behavior in different countries is intriguing. He focuses attention on what he calls imprints and explains (2006:6) “once an imprint occurs, it strongly conditions our thought processes and shapes our future actions. Each imprint helps make us who we are. The combination of imprinted defines us.”

Rapaille suggests that most imprinting is done in children up to the age of seven because (2006:21) “emotion is the central force for children under the age of seven.” His task, in the book, is to search for important imprints in different countries (2006:10, 11) “to discover the emotions and meanings attached to them.” Different countries have cultures and subcultures which imprint or “code” children in different ways. Once the children have been imprinted, they tend to follow the rules and beliefs and practices of their imprinting—their culture codes-for the rest of their lives. But not always, of course.

He offers many interesting examples of different national codings. He discusses the difference between American and French attitudes toward cheese. Americans see cheese as “dead” because they “kill it” through pasteurization and then store it in “morgues” called refrigerators. The American code for cheese is DEAD. The French code for cheese is ALIVE. They see cheese as “alive” and don’t refrigerate it but store it at room temperature in cloches, bell-shaped covers with holes.

He offers a fascinating discussion of how people in different cultures see dinners. The American code for dinner is ESSENTIAL CIRCLE. We often serve food family style “with large plates of food set at the center of the table (creating a circle of sorts, even if the table is rectangular), after which diners pass the plates around the circle so everyone can share.” Then he discusses dinners in of Japanese, Chinese, and English cultures— each of which have different codes. He writes (2006:108):

A Japanese family rarely eats dinner together. Commonly, the men work all day and then go out to drink with their friends. When they get home, their wives may serve them a little soup before they go to bed, but the children will have been fed long before. The notion of a family meal is relatively foreign in Japan. Even when a married couple goes out to dinner with friends, the men and women eat separately.

In China, dinner is all about the food. Food is cooked in multiple locations ... and it has a hugely prominent place in any Chinese home. Food is hanging, drying and curing everywhere. While the Chinese are eating dinner, they rarely speak with one another. Instead they focus entirely on the food...

Dinner in England is a much more form experience than it is in America. The English have very clear rules of behavior at the table, including how one sits while eating, how one uses one’s cutlery, and even how one chews. One would never see English diners in a restaurant offer a taste of the food on their plates, as Americans commonly do. While American see this as convivial, the English see it as vulgar and unsanitary.

Rapaille also points out that Americans do not put any emphasis on the quality of the food. It is the circle that is important. The food is of secondary importance. He notes that once Kraft foods learned about the importance of the circle, they launched an advertising campaign for its DIGIORNO pizza using the phrase “Gather Round.” And McDonald’s ties into this code with its “Happy Meals” in that they facilitated families eating together.

What we learn from Rapaille is that culture codes shape our behavior in countless ways—ways that we generally are not aware of. We aren’t aware of them because they are ubiquitous and seem natural. But they are all learned when we are young and are susceptible to imprinting. It is when we travel abroad, to other countries, that we become aware of different codes shaping people’s lives. And our travels may play a role in reshaping our culture codes. The popularity of Italian espresso coffee drinks, along with the growth of ethnic restaurants from many countries, is an example of how cultures learn from one another.

One of the most influential anthropologists, Bronislaw Malinowski, suggested that anthropologists study the “imponderabilia of life.” He writes in his classic study, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1961:18-19):

There is a series of phenomena of great importance which cannot possibly be recorded by questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality. Let us call them the imponderabilia of actual life. Here belong such things as the routine of a man’s working day, the details of his care of the body, of the manner of taking food and preparing it; the tone of conversational and social life around the village fires, the existence of strong friendships or hostilities, and of passing sympathies and dislikes between people; the subtle yet unmistakable manner in which personal vanities and

Culture Codes ambitions are reflected in the behaviour of the individual and in the emotional reactions of those who surround him. All these facts can and ought to be scientifically formulated and recorded, but it is necessary that this be done, not by a superficial registration of details, as is usually done by untrained observers, but with an effort at penetrating the mental attitude expressed in them.

What marketers attempt to do, among other things, is penetrate the mental attitudes people have towards all manner of goods and services and use their understanding of these mental attitudes—what Rapaille called culture codes—to create more effective advertising campaigns. It is not too much of a stretch to say that marketers are all specialized kinds of anthropologists who focus their attention on the mental attitudes of members of target audiences.

A number of years ago, well before Rapaille’s book came out, I wrote a book on culture codes, which I published recently. Its argument is that what we call culture can be seen as a collection of codes that shape our behavior. These codes vary from culture to culture and from class to class and generation to generation within a culture. Thus, for example, in the United States we eat our salads before we have our main courses while in France they eat salads after they have their main courses. Americans don’t eat horse meat while in France they do—or did when I lived there.

As a result of foreign travel, many American codes are changing. We used to see food as a kind of fuel, needed to keep our bodies running. Now we have become obsessed with food and suddenly chefs have become celebrities. There is an element of Europeanization going on in the United States just as there is an element of Americanization going on in other countries. Russians, for example, now say “Oh My God” in English—an American expression. Disneyland is in France and many other countries, and so are American fast foods.

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