Valuing cultural and linguistic diversity: what can comms professionals learn from the popularity of ‘Squid Game’?

Valuing cultural and linguistic diversity: what can comms professionals learn from the popularity of ‘Squid Game’?

Megan Hogg

Megan Hogg

Since it debuted on 17 September, our social media feeds have been dominated by Netflix’s South Korean offering – Squid Game. The drama is the latest in an expanding wave of international cinema and TV series on the site and tells the story of 456 people who are desperately competing in a series of deadly games with the hope of paying off their debts.  

Despite the Korean dialogue and extreme violence, the show has become the most successful launch in Netflix’s history, with 111 million account holders tuning in during its first month on the site. These are the kind of numbers that traditional network television executives dream of; all from a foreign-language TV show, the likes of which have in the past failed to succeed in Anglophone markets. Before the advent of streaming, foreign-language TV was pushed to the fringes of British and American media, only found by those desperately seeking it out.  

Now, giants like Netflix and HBO Max actively promote their foreign-language offering. Netflix has now made series in 62 different languages, which begs the question, is language the same barrier that it once was? 

Travelling across the globe, all without leaving your living room 

The cultural zeitgeist in English-speaking countries has long been dominated by English-speaking film and television, with a lack of willingness to engage with foreign-language media. But, as streaming services become increasingly popular, giving viewers access to content from a broader range of sources, so does foreign-language content. Of Netflix’s top ten most-streamed shows, 40% were either shot or conceptualised in a country where English is not the dominant language. If we narrow this list down to the top three, two of the three have no English dialogue. 

This multinational trend is not limited to the world of Netflix streaming. Some argue that South Korea has become a frontline contributor to global culture in recent years – all because of K-pop. And it certainly isn’t just Korean culture which is taking over the airwaves; Italian rock band Maneskin shot to fame earlier this year when they won the Eurovision Song Contest, amassing nearly 18 million listeners in the month following their win.  

It would be remiss to think that the growing popularity of these non-Anglophone cultural phenomena has not, in part, been motivated by a global pandemic which forced us all to slow down, stop travelling, and try new things from the comfort of our own homes. People are choosing to travel without ever packing a suitcase, experiencing new cultures through their TV screens.  

This is the kind of lifestyle change which brings about the kind of streaming figures produced by Squid Game.  

What can comms professionals learn from Squid Game? 

Communications and PR professionals can and should learn a lot from the increasing national and linguistic diversity we’re experiencing in our everyday lives. But tread carefully; consider what is appropriate from the original story and what needs to be adapted to fit with your target country’s culture. 

Squid Game is a prime example of the impact of cultural and linguistic nuances when a piece is consumed in multiple different countries. It appeals to audiences around the globe due to its analysis of the anxieties of modern life and its commentary on social inequalities. These themes will undoubtedly mean even more to a South Korean audience however, who are living through a personal debt crisis which has risen in recent years to over 100% of its GDP,  famously also documented in the 2020 Oscar-winning film Parasite. Moreover, the game central to Squid Game’s plot is based upon creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s favourite childhood playground game, which was mostly limited to Korea. Consequently, whilst Squid Game does not need to be adapted in any way for global viewers to understand it, there are certain nuances that are simply lost on many audiences. 

Making culturally rich (and culturally sensitive) campaigns 

When it comes to communications campaigns, there are times when you can succeed with a story like Squid Game, which has specific national cultural nuances.  Perhaps it simply doesn’t make sense to make cultural adaptations, because the story is just fundamentally South Korean, or German, or whatever it may be. In this case, you are assuming (based upon extensive research) that your target audience has a significant enough sensitivity to the original culture for the story to not be lost on them. This is absolutely possible and requires in-depth prior research to ensure that no part of the story will be lost in translation, or even appear appropriated, making sure to touch bases with those in both your original and target country. 

More often though, campaigns need to be contextually adapted to suit different regions. We’ve all heard of Google Translate fails, such as the PR disaster caused by Amazon’s errors in cultural sensitivity when first launching in the Nordics. These errors are not only embarrassing but can cause deep harm to a business’ relationship with the people of that region and affect your global reputation. Comms professionals must learn from locals and truly understand a region’s nuances before attempting to launch campaigns there.  

For example, when Google Chrome launched in Thailand, local insight revealed that Thai consumers enjoy traditional storytelling. So, when the global giant brought its browser to the country it created an interactive visualisation experiment designed to showcase the browser through the Ramakien ancient Sanskrit epic tale. During the campaign there was a 53% increase in usage, which demonstrates the importance of developing unique, local campaigns.  

In individual cases, it is up to you to do your research and decide what linguistic and cultural adaptations (if any) are necessary.  We can certainly learn from different regions, but we shouldn’t just take from them. As South-Korean Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho famously said in his acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”. Perhaps for the world of PR and comms, we can adapt this to say, “Once you overcome the barrier of your nation’s borders, you will be introduced to so many more amazing audiences.” 

Thinking of launching a comms campaign in Europe? Let us help you out with navigating national nuances and read our guide to Pan-European comms here.  

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