Sean Patrick Hopwood is a language polyglot and a language enthusiast. His goal in life is to bring world peace through education, tolerance and cultural awareness. He is also the President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc., a global translation company. Day Translations has also created a free translation tool.
Learning a language is a beautiful thing. It’s been widely documented how being bilingual makes you smarter. Communicating with foreign people improves your cultural intelligence. Making decisions becomes easier because your concentration span elevates when you speak another language. But what doesn’t always make the papers is the simple fact that learning to speak other languages is fun and also funny at times. With abundant opportunities for putting your proverbial foot into places you shouldn’t.
If you haven’t been trapped in a room with foreign languages speakers all gabbing on about something you had no idea about, or felt socially awkward at a foreign family gathering or village festival, then you’ll never be able call yourself a local. And if you can’t have a good old giggle at your own expense when you get things wrong, then why not have a laugh at someone else’s expense? In this article, we invite you to have a laugh at a few big companies who have made some very big and expensive communication mistakes.
All big companies have taglines for each of their products, including Unilever, Coca-Cola and Ford. This might not have crossed your mind, but funny things can happen when some of the greatest taglines are translated and pitched to foreign markets. The top executives of some of these companies may believe translating a tagline is as simple as pressing the translate button, but different cultural nuances need to be taken into account to properly convey the message to a foreign target audience – a fact you’d think they wouldn’t ignore.
For the sake of a good old giggle, we scoured the advertising history archives to find expensive marketing campaigns hilariously misinterpreted by foreign audiences. Because the following companies did not properly do their research, they ended up paying millions of dollars in “apology ads,” reshoots and reprint costs. Plus the campaigns proved to be rather humiliating for the copywriters and company executives.
Check out these nine epic language flops that have to be seen to be believed:
1. Braniff International Airways – Most of us are too young to remember when Braniff planes were flying the skies. And that’s probably a good thing. Operating for almost half a century with its most popular routes from the US to Mexico, Central and South America, you’d think this airline popular within Latin America would manage a simple slogan translation from English to Spanish. Unfortunately for them, no. Still widely recognized as one of the greatest branding flops of all time, Braniff’s “fly in leather,” as in fly in fine upholstered seats, came out as “fly naked” in Spanish. Now that would be an interesting flight.
2. The American Dairy Association – Carrying on in the corporate industry we have another giant flop from the American Dairy Association. When it translated its famous motto“Got milk?” into Spanish, it came out as “are you lactating?” That’s a little personal a question for most women and certainly not for men.
3. Three Naked Pigs – Ever hear that British expression “The Full Monty?” It basically means going all the way and was the title of a popular film with Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy back in 1997. When it was released in China, the film about males coming together and stripping for a good cause was translated as “Three Naked Pigs.”
4. Parker Pen – When this famous pen company was expanding into Mexico it made the monumental flop of mistranslating “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” into “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. Talk about a public gaffe. This was far from the message the pen company was trying to convey in Mexico.
5. HSBC Bank – HSBC Bank faced tremendous problems having its “Assume Nothing” campaign translate to its overseas markets. The message translated to “Do Nothing” in many countries, which did not carry over well to consumers in those markets. It finally scrapped the campaign in 2009, opting instead to change its tagline to the more neutral and consumer friendly “The world’s private bank.”
6. Coors – US beer maker Coors found out the hard way that slang doesn’t translate well to foreign markets. When introducing its hip “Turn It Loose” campaign to Spain, the company’s executives forgot to verify whether the translation would work in the European country. In Spanish, the tagline referred to a common expression known as “Suffer from diarrhea.” Oops.
7. KFC – The famous fried-chicken franchise KFC saw its campaign flop when it first opened its doors in Beijing, China in the late 1980s. The restaurant had made the mistake of translating its well-known slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” to the not-so-tasty phrase: “Eat your fingers off.” So much for trying to make a good impression!
8. Ford – Car manufacturer Ford suffered a major communication failure when it sought to highlight its product’s strengths to consumers in Belgium. In a bid to pitch the solid manufacturing of its cars, Ford accidentally translated its advertising tagline of “Every car has a high-quality body” to one that was commonly interpreted as “Every car has a high-quality corpse.” What a blunder.
9. Electrolux – American companies haven’t been the only ones to commit fatal translation mistakes. Swedish vacuum manufacturer Electrolux should have hired a better Swedish to English translation services agency when it launched its first advertising campaign in the United States. Believing it was talking about the strong suction power of its vacuum cleaner, the Scandinavian company’s ad campaign peddled the tagline “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” US shoppers were hardly impressed.