How Body Language Can Negatively Impact Your Global Marketing

When localizing your marketing messages, you don’t want to give your target audience the wrong idea by using symbols that translate differently in the local culture. Body language is loaded with cultural meaning. In fact, different countries actually attach different meanings to gestures commonly used in the United States. Here are four examples.

The V Sign

During the Second World War, Winston Churchill famously used the V for victory sign (with the palm facing away from the gesturer). However, as any student of British history knows, legend has it that the origin of the V sign goes back much further to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Later, during the 60s in the US this gesture came to signify peace. You can read more about the V sign by clicking here.

  • If you are thinking of using the V sign to market your brand in the UK and certain former British colonial countries such as Australia or South Africa, you should understand that the V sign made with the palm facing inwards is regarded as an obscene gesture.

Thumbs Up

Throughout the US, giving the thumbs up sign means you approve of or agree with something. However, in Greece, Italy, Bangladesh, most of the Middle East, and parts of Africa, thumbs-up means just the opposite, a highly offensive thumbs-down. In Japan where the thumb is counted as the fifth digit, a raised thumb will get you five of something. Good advice is to keep your thumbs safely tucked away if you aren’t sure about the local custom.

  • The thumbs up sign may have originated in the Roman Coliseum, where the spectators decided the fate of a gladiator (although it appears that thumbs up meant the gladiator should die). Read more about the origin of the thumbs up body language by clicking here.


This sign, where the thumb and first finger touch to form a circle, means everything is good or all is well in the US. However, in France this gesture means that you are worthless. In Italy or Denmark it might also be seen as an insult, and in most Latin American countries it would probably be considered obscene (it represents someone’s butt!). In Japan, the sign is associated with money. You can read more about the A-Okay sign here.

Feet on the Table

In Arab cultures, shoes are considered dirty because they are on the ground and associated with the feet, the lowest parts of the body. If your body language consists of putting your feet up on a table in the Middle East, you are exposing the soles of your shoes and insulting your hosts. This also goes for sitting cross-legged on a chair.

  • Even worse behavior is throwing a shoe at someone, which is why certain Iraqis pummeled the statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes when he was overthrown. And, disgruntled Iraqis threw shoes at President Bush during a press conference.

Be Mindful not to Upset Your Target Audience with the Wrong Body Language

Obviously, it’s impossible to know what every gesture means in every country. So, before you take your website and app live in a different culture, have your visuals checked out beforehand by local experts to avoid unintentional insults or faux pas. It’s important to ensure that any body language depicted in your icons, images, or other visuals are employed appropriately. And, it’s equally critical to make sure you don’t translate words in such a way as to offend people in your target audience.

At Localize we understand the importance of communicating with people not just in their native language, but also in their cultural language. Talk to us to see how we can help you with your localization efforts.

Share this post:

Related Reading