Cultural Differences in VR Sustainability Advertising: The Role of Culture in Perceptions towards Sustainability Messages in Virtual Reality
by Laurent Hebette
Thesis supervisor: dr. Barbara Schouten
It is essential to find ways to promote sustainable behaviors in a time where overconsumption is leading to rapid environmental degradation and global warming (United Nations, 2019; Vergragt et al., 2016). Although public awareness is growing, there remains a gap between sustainability awareness and sustainable behaviors (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). Recent studies using Virtual Reality (VR) suggest a breakthrough in convincing people to adopt more sustainable behaviors (Ahn et al., 2015; Chirico et al., 2021).
However, these studies do not consider the influence of culture, despite previous communication research showing that culture influences perceptions and reactions to VR content (Bucolo, 2004; Buliva, 2018) as well as sustainability messages (Chen, 2015). Considering that it is essential to convince people from different cultures to adopt sustainable behaviors, the aim of the present study was to explore whether participants from the Netherlands and China (two countries with opposing cultural orientations) would have different perceptions and responses to watching a sustainability message in VR.
These culture orientations are defined by Singelis et al. (1995) as the difference between cultures where people perceive themselves as individuals (individualist orientation), versus cultures where people perceive themselves as part of a group (collectivist orientation). Additionally, cultures may also differ based whether individuals see themselves as being on a similar or same level to others (horizontal orientation), versus seeing themselves as being within a hierarchical social order (vertical orientation) (Singelis et al., 1995).
This study used an innovative research approach combining VR with semi-structured interviews. This method allowed for a more in-depth exploration of the perceptions individuals with different cultural orientations have in regard to viewing a sustainability message in VR. The sample consisted of 14 participants in total, and included an equal number of Dutch (N=7) and Chinese participants (N=7). Throughout the interviews, participants were asked to wear a VR headset and watch an immersive sustainability message developed by United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP, 2020). The video educated participants on climate friendly lifestyles. The interviews were transcribed and coded, and the most grounded perceptions were analyzed and compared to form a concept indicator model for the concept of cultural differences in perceiving sustainability messages in VR.
The main cultural differences in perceptions which arose during the interviews form the five dimensions seen in the concept indicator model. These dimensions include (1) openness to technology, (2) emphasis on emotions versus logic, (3) tendency to follow rules, (4) importance of sustainability, and (5) specific message perceptions in terms of personal relevance and sustainability awareness. Each of these dimensions consists of two indicators.
The first dimension is related to how Dutch and Chinese participants perceive their dominant culture in terms of openness to accepting new technologies such as Virtual Reality. The first indicator in this dimension was derived from Chinese participants reporting a high degree of openness to new technology in China. The second indicator is related to Dutch participants expressing relatively critical perceptions concerning VR and technology which tries to influence them.
The second dimension is related to Dutch and Chinese participants perceiving different preferences in terms of emphasis on logical versus emotional elements in the VR message. The first indicator in this dimension represents the Dutch preference for more emphasis on logical arguments, scientific facts and statistics, over emotional appeals in the message. The second indicator represents the Chinese preference for more emotional appeals, which came from Chinese participants’ perceptions that the message would have been more persuasive to a Chinese audience had it been more emotional.
The third dimension is based on the perceptions Dutch and Chinese participants have towards accepting messages which ask them to follow rules. The first indicator is related to Dutch participants perceiving a cultural tendency to be hesitant towards following rules imposed by others, possibly due to Dutch cultures horizontal-individualist orientation. The second indicator was derived from Chinese participants perceiving a cultural tendency to follow rules imposed from top down. Similarly, this is likely due to the vertical-collectivist culture in Chinese culture, which places emphasis on a hierarchical social order and respecting one’s elders.
The fourth dimension is related to how Chinese participants perceive differences in the way Chinese people perceive the relative importance of sustainability in their daily lives. The first indicator is the perceived lack of importance and low prioritization of sustainably in the daily lives of Chinese people relative to Dutch people. Sustainability was described as being perceived by Chinese people as less important due to more urgent personal, economic and social issues. The second indicator is related to perceptions that sustainability is a Western concept and issue for the more privileged or developed societies.
The fifth and final dimension is related to specific differences in how the VR message was perceived by Dutch and Chinese participants. The first indicator in this dimension is related to the perceived relevance of the message, with more Dutch participants perceiving the message to have personal relevance compared with Chinese participants. The second indicator is related to the level of sustainability awareness participants had before watching the message, with Dutch participants explaining that the message repeated many things which they already knew, while more Chinese participants reported learning something new from the message.
The implications of the results suggest that there are in fact cultural differences how people perceive sustainability messages in VR. In the discussion of the paper, it was argued that these differences could perhaps be explained by differences in cultural orientations of Chinese and Dutch culture. For instance, Dutch culture has a very individualist and horizontal orientation, which may explain a tendency to be reluctant to authoritative messages asking them to follow rules. In contrast, Chinese culture, which has a more collectivist and vertical orientation, may explain why Chinese people are more accepting of authoritative messages which ask them to follow rules. Nevertheless, this study does not statistically test any hypotheses, so further research should be conducted considering along these five dimensions for cultural differences for perceiving sustainability messages in VR.
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The Digital Communication Methods Lab is an initiative of the Research Priority Area Commmunication, at the University of Amsterdam.