Lost in translation: When advertising goes wrong

Many entrepreneurs dream of expanding their businesses oversees. However, marketing your product or service abroad requires some research and preparation.

Despite care taken not to slip, companies still make cultural blunders. Here are some ways well-known companies made cross-cultural, cross-border oversights.

National anthem reigns supreme

The German car giant BMW made the marketing mistake of improperly using the UAE national anthem in a car commercial.

The ad displayed the Al Ain Football Club singing the anthem and then breaking into a run toward several BMW cars when they heard the sound of the engine. Although the brand was trying to arouse intense emotion, it evoked rage instead of passion.

Emiratis found it incredibly offensive that the car company suggested their cars were more important than the anthem. The company explained its intent was never to offend and replaced the ad with a less offensive version. 

Chinese lives matter

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Luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana shared a series of ads on social media in which a Chinese woman attempted to eat Italian food with chopsticks while a male voice gave her directions.

The ad was denounced and Chinese consumers, one of Dolce & Gabbana’s largest markets, threatened to boycott the brand entirely. Even the Chinese government weighed in. Viewers felt the narrator was full of racial superiority crap.

He was ridiculing the woman with chopsticks whilst claiming how superior Italian things were, perhaps trying (and failing) to associate the brand with its Italian heritage.

A toothpaste that blackens teeth, perhaps?

Pepsodent promoted its toothpaste in a distinct area in Southeast Asia by highlighting that it “whitens your teeth.”

This campaign entirely failed because the locals chew betel nuts to blacken their teeth as it is considered attractive.

While still on toothpaste companies, Colgate launched toothpaste in France named ‘Cue’ without realising that it’s also the name of a French pornographic magazine.

You could be drinking waxed tadpoles

The Coca-Cola name in China was first read as ‘Kekoukela’, which means “Bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax” depending on the dialect.

Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent, eventually settling on “kokou kole,” which translates as “happiness in the mouth.”

Brings your ancestors back from the dead

When Pepsi cola tried to expand their market into China, they had a terrible time. In the 1950s, Pepsi’s slogan was “Be sociable”. This was translated as; “Be intimate.” Not exactly a great message considering China’s political position in the ‘50s. Sales actually went down instead of up.

In the 1960s, Pepsi’s slogan was, “Now it’s Pepsi for those who think young.” That was translated as, “New Pepsi is for people with the minds of children.” Sales fell even further.

Pepsi hurriedly changed its marketing once again, but the new “Come alive with Pepsi!” slogan became “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” Noting the problem, Pepsi switched to “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation,” but this was translated as “Resurrect! Your body will be made of Pepsi!”

At that point the company just had to give up. They never did overcome the translation problem. To this day, cola drink sales in China are dominated by a local brand, Bite the Wax Tadpole.

Eat your fingers off

While most businesses try to make a good impression when expanding into a foreign country, fried chicken franchise KFC got off on the wrong foot when it opened in China in the late 1980s.

When the company opened its doors in Beijing, the restaurant accidentally translated its famous slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” to a not-so-appetising phrase: “Eat your fingers off.” In the end, the blunder didn’t hurt KFC too badly: It’s the top fast-food restaurant in China today, with more than 5,000 restaurants in more than 850 cities.

Do nothing

HSBC Bank was forced to rebrand its entire global private banking operations after bringing a US campaign overseas. In 2009, the worldwide bank spent millions of dollars to scrap its five-year-old ‘Assume Nothing’ campaign.

Problems arose when the message was brought overseas, where it was translated in many countries as ‘Do Nothing’. In the end, the bank spent $10 million to change its tagline to ‘The world’s private bank,’ which has a much friendlier translation.

Nothing sucks like this vacuum cleaner

Swedish vacuum maker Electrolux got a quick lesson in English slang when it introduced its products in the US.

Thinking it was highlighting its vacuum’s high power, the Scandinavian company’s ad campaign centered on the tagline; “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

While the slogan might have been grammatically correct, it never really took off with US shoppers.

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