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Study Claims Global Marketers Should Choose Subtitles Instead of Voice-over

A new study from EMLYON business school suggests global marketers should choose subtitles instead of voice-over, to translate video material for non-English speaking audiences.

The study, conducted by EMLYON’s Margherita Pagani, claims there is “no significant difference between the performance of the two [subtitles and voice-over]”. It then goes on to claim marketers should go for the cheaper option of subtitles when targeting international audiences – an interesting claim.
The classic debate: video subtitles or voice-over.

There’s nothing new to the debate between subtitles and voice-over, but there’s far more to consider than the cost alone. Sadly, we don’t have access to the actual data the EMLYON study bases its conclusion on, but we’d love to see it.

Cost-effectiveness is always important, of course, and subtitles typically have the edge in this regard. But it’s the end result that matters from a marketing perspective and this means getting the right response from your audience. Both subtitles and voice-over have a justified place in video translation, but the choice hangs on a number of factors.

Factors to consider

To say there’s “no significant difference” between subtitles and voice-over on an audience neglects the following key points (amongst others).

On-screen factors
If you have a marketing video for a product with nothing more than a narrator for dialogue, then does it make sense to go for subtitles? Not really. Consider this iPhone 5 video from 2013 – a short voice-over and a localised screenshot is all it takes:

Clearly this is a more effective approach than releasing an English-only ad and forcing international viewers to read subtitles. Especially when this is an ad designed to visually display a standout feature of the iPhone 5 – it makes no sense to take viewer attention away from that.
Number of voices
At the opposite end of the spectrum you can have material that involves multiple voices. Subtitles in this case can make it difficult to distinguish between one speaker and another. Take a look at this Transformers 4 film trailer for German audiences:

Here we have a dubbed voice-over instead of subtitles for an audience that has a preference for voice-overs (more on that later). The end result is a good one too, because there are numerous voices speaking – both on and off-camera – which could be confusing with subtitles.

Existing dialogue, text and pace
One of the biggest deciding factors between subtitles and voice-overs is the existing dialogue and text of your source material. If you have lots of high-paced dialogue then viewers could struggle to keep up by relying on subtitles.
You also want to think about any text you may have in your footage – like the Spanish menu screen in the iPhone ad. You may find you have to opt for voice-overs and reserve a space for subtitles if you have signs or blocks of text on screen that need translating or explaining to viewers.
Audience preference
We touched on this with the Transformers trailer, but audience preferences between subtitles and voice-overs can vary greatly. Countries like Germany and Spain are used to seeing a plethora of English-language film and TV with dubbed voice-overs, so it makes little sense to target them with subtitles.
Likewise, subtitles are more common in many Asian countries where netizens fuel an online community of subtitled media.
Making the choice between video subtitles and voice-overs
There are many more things to consider when weighing up the choice between subtitles and voice-over – the languages you’re translating for one thing. And subtitles do have a number of benefits that make them the smart choice in certain circumstances. In fact, only mentioning cost is selling them short!
Today’s article has swung largely in favour of voice-overs and that was quite intentional. Not because they’re necessarily the better choice, but to highlight how the two perform very differently. And, more to the point, to show you need to consider much more than price alone when you’re choosing between the two.