Subtitles vs. Dubbing, Part 2: Audience Research is Key

I had an interesting exchange last week with a colleague from the marketing/branding industry about this subtitled video, which documents the creation of the logo for the Rio 2016 Olympics.


Making of Rio 2016, in Portuguese with English subtitles.

His reaction: “It really reminded me that audio in one’s native language is vital in communication.”

Mine: “The sound of Brazilian Portuguese is so beautiful, and so much a part of the Rio brand, I wouldn’t want to hear the video in any other language. Reading subtitles is a small price to pay.”

Two English-speaking Canadian communications professionals, two completely different responses to seeing a subtitled video. That got me thinking further about the subtitles-vs.-dubbing divide. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the key to deciding whether to dub or subtitle your brand video or documentary lies in looking at:

  • The context in which it is being watched, and
  • Whether the content is informational or emotional

The audience is key

I think I missed an important element. The key, as in all professional communications, is to consider your audience. Who are you addressing? What is their preference? In other words, before deciding whether to dub or subtitle, do some audience research.

I was curious about what kind of audience research there is on this, so I got to Googling, and quickly found some interesting links.

An academic article points out that France, Germany, Italy and Spain have a long tradition of dubbing foreign content, while the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece and the United Kingdom prefer subtitles.

But then it turns up some interesting research: back in the 80s, Britain’s Channel 4 showed a French soap opera in both dubbed and subtitled versions. Despite the UK’s tradition of subtitling foreign films, the dubbed version got much higher ratings. Was this because the natural audience for a soap opera is viewers who don’t normally watch subtitles? Very possibly.

A 2010 study by the British Film Council compared UK audience response to dubbed and subtitled formats of the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Unsurprisingly, the dubbed version attracted a broader, more mainstream audience (people who usually went to see blockbusters such as Avatar), while the subtitled version attracted mainly fans of foreign and art-house films. More people chose the dubbed version, but the subtitle viewers enjoyed the film more. The study’s conclusion: viewers were happiest when given a choice of dubbed vs. subtitled versions.

Another article argues that dubbing works better for horror movies, for example, because viewers are free to shut their eyes or look away without missing dialogue.

So where does that leave our clients: video producers, agencies, brand managers, etc.?

Don’t distract from the message

Content and context are still important.

  • If you want your viewers to focus intently on the action, don’t distract them with subtitles.
  • If you want to hit them with an emotional personal story, don’t distract them with a dubbed voice (unless you have the budget to hire top professional dubbing talent).

Meet your audience where it is

But even more important is to meet your audience where it is. Are you after a broad, mainstream unilingual audience? You probably want to spend the extra money and dub your content. Are you addressing professionals in a largely multilingual industry, or in a country where subtitles are the norm? You’re probably safe to save your money and subtitle.

A client was asking last week about versioning IT marketing videos into Dutch. My advice was to forget about dubbing and stick to subtitles, because virtually everyone in the Netherlands speaks at least some English, and even afternoon reruns of the original Charlie’s Angels are subtitled (which could explain why nearly everyone speaks English). Better to take the savings and apply them to dubbing for the French and Spanish markets, where customers expect to listen to their own language.

Bottom Line: Yes, subtitles are much less expensive than dubbing. But misjudging your audience’s preferences and expectations can prove to be the most expensive choice of all.

Still confused? Drop us a line, and we’ll talk it through.

Eric Geringas
Versioning producer. Documentary filmmaker. Factual TV director. Problem solver.