At one time or another, many major corporations have decided to leave their home countries and pursue business in the international market. This presents a number of unique challenges from a planning and strategy standpoint, but unique among them is the simple problem of advertising. Advertising may seem a minor concern that could cause a few minor disruptions to business-as-usual, but that’s where you would be wrong. Here are a dozen of the most hilariously unintentional marketing fails by companies attempting to reach an international customer base.
Schweppes Flushes Its Own Advertising Campaign
As a general rule, most modern societies do not consume water from their toilet. Nobody likes associating their drinking water with a receptacle which is used to contain and dispose of human waste. That’s where the trouble started for Schweppe’s.
As a purveyor of tonic water, Schweppes first decided to reach out to Italian consumers with an ad campaign that probably should have been proofread by someone with an English-Italian dictionary. In Italian, the words for tonic and toilet are fairly easy to mistake for one another. That meant that when Schweppes unveiled their new campaign, they essentially offered all of Italy a tall refreshing glass of toilet water. Despite being a surprise hit with the Italian canine community, the human population politely took a pass.
A thoroughly embarrassed Schweppes immediately discontinued their campaign and went on to newer and better advertising. Better researched and far less...objectionable advertising.
Clairol’s Crappy Campaign
Advertising in the beauty and cosmetics industry has always stuck to the same basic principles: gorgeous supermodels or celebrities posing for the camera with monotonous pop music droning on a little too loudly as a soundtrack. It is likely these principles that inspired Clairol to take a different direction with their German marketing plan.
The product in question was a basic curling iron they had developed, called the “Mist Stick.” In most of their major markets, it was actually one of Clairol’s better sellers, except for Germany. The reason behind its lack of popularity with German consumers, is that the word “mist” in German slang means fecal matter. Naturally, persuading the general population to use a product whose name meant “feces stick” in their hair was a bit of a tough sell. It may have been a serious advertising setback for Clairol, but at least many Germans had a good laugh at their cosmetic company’s expense.
Night of the Living Cola
Over-the-top claims regarding beverages and their benefits are as old as the beverage business itself. These exaggerations of the truth have become business as usual for decades, or at least they were until PepsiCo made the claim that their beverage would literally bring the dead back to life.
Apparently, when Pepsi decided to start marketing their line of soft drinks to customers in Asia, they used what they believe to be a simple translation of their existing slogan at the time: “Pepsi brings you back to life.”
Classic Pepsi, right? Totally innocuous...unless you speak Chinese. Due to their lack of verification of their translation with a native speaker of Chinese, the slogan actually read “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
While this might seem like an amusing little slip to Westerners, the Chinese people revere their ancestors, and the practice of ancestor worship is still commonplace even today. Needless to say, the general population of China was less than amused, and sales decline sharply after Pepsi initiated their campaign.
Parker Pens’ Embarrassing Faux Pas
Generally, when one is purchasing a pen, there are typical and atypical concerns that affect each buyer differently. One of those concerns, as a rule, is not whether or not your pen can make you pregnant.
The story goes a little something like this: Parker was launching their new “Quink” line of pens to the Spanish speaking masses of the world. The unfortunately named Quink pen was guaranteed not the “leak and embarrass you,” which seems like a perfectly normal thing for a pen not to do. However, when the advertising copy was translated into spanish, they translated “embarass” to “embarazar”. Seems legit, right? Wrong. In Spanish, embarazar is the verb what means “to make someone pregnant.” While this is a fantastic guarantee to make when you are selling condoms, it is hardly the best way to market the benefits of owning a Parker pen.
Ford’s Little Mistake
Cars and the male member have a longstanding, complex relationship. Regardless of how true or untrue it may be, it’s generally accepted within the United States at least that large or flashy vehicles are overcompensation for those who are underendowed.
Similar to Clairol’s misstep with the Mist Stick, Ford’s marketing campaign for the Ford Pinto was similarly hamstrung due to local slang. While in the US a Pinto is a breed of horse, it held an altogether different meaning for the Portuguese speaking customer of Brazil. As you may have guessed, “pinto” in Brazillian slang means penis. Unfortunately for Ford though, it turns out that pinto is actually a pejorative to indicate an exceptionally miniscule penis. Needless to say, there were not many male drivers in Brazil who wanted to cruise the town at night in a car that literally has “tiny penis” printed on on the sides and the back.
Ford’s Grave Error
As part of their major marketing plan for Belgium, Ford decided to emphasize the high-quality construction of every Ford car. Their slogan “Every car has a high-quality body” was intended to illustrate the sturdiness and dependability of every car that rolled out of their factory. The campaign launched, and the ad executives at Ford put their feet up and waited for the money train to pull into the station.
However, much to their chagrin, the money train never arrived. As it turns out, Belgians don’t have dead bodies topping their list of must-have standard features when buying a car. The copywriters at Ford apparently used the word for “corpse” instead of the word for “body”, essentially guaranteeing every new Ford customer a freshly decomposing body with every purchase of a new vehicle. It’s definitely creative, but rather off putting to the average car buyer, not to mention and exceptionally difficult promise to fulfill.
Mercedes-Benz Deadly Mistranslation
The iconic German car maker had a serious problem on their hands when adapting their marketing for Chinese consumers. Many advertisers find that translating a name for a product or brand into Chinese is simply a matter of finding characters that form the same sounds as the product or brand in question, and with any luck the resulting word is something that is positive or flattering.
This was not the case with Mercedes-Benz, as the word that most closely resembles Benz in Chinese was “bensi”, meaning “rush to die”. Naturally, there were not too many Chinese car enthusiasts who were eager to drive a vehicle with a name that means rushing to the worst-case scenario of driving a high-end German automobile. After seeing some very disappointing sales results, the automaker altered the name to a far wiser choice of word, “benchi”, which means “run quickly as if flying.”
Perdue’s Great “Love” for Chicken
When poultry giant Perdue decided to expand their business into Mexico, they decided to carry over their popular American slogan “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken.”, plastering it all over billboards along the highways of our neighbors to the south. The billboards were definitely attention grabbers for Perdue’s brand, but definitely not in the way they would have intended. Thanks to an incredibly inaccurate translation, Perdue’s advertising boldly proclaimed to one and all that “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”
Needless to say, this unintentional advocation of bestiality did not do a great deal to boost sales, and Perdue was forced to scrap their multi-million dollar ad campaign.
Kentucky Fried Cannibalism
KFC opened up locations in China for the first time in 1987, and were immediately acquainted with complex problems of translating almost anything in English into Chinese. Subtle variations between characters can drastically alter the meaning of words. Take for example, KFC’s slogan at the time “It’s finger lickin’ good!”
The Chinese translation that KFC’s marketing team came up with essentially stated that KFC chicken was so good, customers would gnaw off their own fingers. Fortunately, KFC was able to correct their error, and they are now one of the most popular fried chicken chains in all of China, especially for their local favorite specialties: fungus and fermented eggs. Yum!
Gerber Baby Food: Now With 100% Real Babies!
This particular story is not due to a mistranslation as much as it is due to cultural conflict. When Gerber started marketing their baby food products in Ethiopia, they kept the adorable Gerber baby on the label. What they didn’t realize (and honestly, who could blame them for not knowing?) was that the majority of the population of Ethiopia is largely illiterate, instead depending on pictures on the packaging to identify various canned and packaged food products. Imagine the horror of the local population upon seeing tiny jars of what was, as far as they could make out, tiny jars of pureed baby. This issue was hastily corrected with pictures of the vegetables for each variety of baby food, but you can easily understand the locals confusion, if not abject horror.
Coors Lets A Little Too Loose
American brewer Coors discovered that American slang doesn’t translate well into many languages. For example, when they took their ultra-cool “Turn It Loose” advertising campaign to Spain, no one at Coors thought to double check that the translation of the slogan would resonate with consumers. As it turns out, when translated from English to Spanish, the slogan used an expression that means “Suffer from diarrhea.” The ads were certainly memorable to Spanish consumers, just not in the way that Coors most likely intended them to be.
The Swedish Mistake
Corporations in America are not the only ones guilty of losing their marketing message in poor translations. Swedish vacuum manufacturer Elextrolux got a crash course in English clang when it first introduced its products to the US. Intending to emphasize their vacuums high power, Electrolux ad campaign for the States used the tagline “Nothing sucks like and Electrolux”. Grammatically correct though it may be, it never took off with U.S. buyers for obvious reasons, and of course the plethora of obvious jokes at Electrolux’ expense.