SIX YEARS AMONG EXPERTS in international advertising taught me at least one thing: there are no experts in the field of international advertising. No matter how silky and cogent a message may be in its native tongue, no matter how craftily you transliterate and test it, some idiot is sure to read it the wrong way.
Back in the late 1920s, for example, Coca-Cola came to mainland China with a name for its product that meant "Delicious and Rejoice." Unfortunately they left it up to local store keepers to handle the advertising signage, which in some cases rendered the Chinese characters as "Bite the Wax Tadpole."
It may be a smaller world today, but there's still plenty of room for advertisers to make fools of themselves with a little accidental "globaldegook." Here are some of my favorite examples. Feel free to share some of your own!
- Coors put its slogan, "Turn it loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer from diarrhea."
- A Miami T-shirt maker printed Spanish-language shirts for a visit by the Pope. Instead of "I saw the Pope" (El Papa), the shirts read, "I saw the potato" (la papa).
- Frank Perdue's chicken slogan, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," was translated as, "It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate."
- When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, the line "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you" was transformed into, "It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."
Lullaby of Deutschland
- Clairol's "Mist Stick" curling iron was a flop in Germany -- where "mist" is slang for manure.
Chinese Soda Torture
- "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" was originally translated into Chinese as, "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."
- Gerber sold baby food in Africa with its trademark baby photo on the label. Later they learned that companies there routinely put pictures of what's inside on the label, since most people could not read.
These are only a few of the many international gaffes that we all try in vain to avoid. If you have a personal example to share, let me know and we might do another column -- anonymously, if need be.