International Marketing and Advertising Translation – The Top 20 Blunders, Mistakes and Failures

Coming up with brand names for international markets is a tricky business. It’s essential that a native speaker checks any translated copy before it’s let loose on the public. Sometimes, though, even the biggest of brands can get it wrong. Here are the top 20 translation errors I’ve come across:

1. Pepsi’s “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into Chinese became “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”.

2. An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of “I saw the Pope” (el Papa), the shirts read “I saw the potato” (la papa).

3. The Big Mac was originally sold in France under the name Gros Mec. In French, that translates as ‘big pimp’.

4. Schweppes Tonic Water was translated into Italian as “Schweppes Toilet Water.” Oh Scchh*t!

5. The Coors slogan “Turn it loose,” in Spanish became “Suffer from diarrhoea.”

6. Cars seem to offer a particular blind spot for advertisers. My favourite is the Chevrolet Nova. In the UK, it’s the Vauxhall Nova. No problem there, but in Spain the Nova wasn’t quite so popular. ‘No va’ means ‘doesn’t go’.

7. GM cars: Originally sold in Belgium using the slogan, “Body by Fisher,” which translated as “Corpse by Fisher.”

8. Not to be outdone, Ford marketed the Ford Caliente in Mexico, until they found out “caliente” is slang for ‘streetwalker’ and changed its name to S-22.

9. Even as grand a brand as Rolls Royce can make mistakes. The Rolls-Royce Silver Mist never sold well in Germany. Perhaps because In German, mist means “human waste.”

10. Clairol fell…erm foul of the same problem when they introduced the “Mist Stick,” a curling iron, into Germany.

11. Sometimes you can still get it wrong even when words aren’t involved. When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what’s inside, since most people can’t read English.

12. The US Dairy Association’s huge success with the campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention that the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?”

13. The slogan for Frank Perdue chicken products “it takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” was translated into Spanish as “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”

14. Cue toothpaste was sold in France by Colgate-Palmolive… until they learned that Cue was also the name of a well-known porn magazine.

15. When Parker Pens marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read: “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”. Unfortunately, the company thought that the word “embarazar” (to impregnate) meant to embarrass, so the ads read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

16. Still on pens, Parker had a model called The Jotter. This rather bemused consumers in some South American countries, where jotter is slang for ‘jockstrap’.

17. When American Airlines wanted to advertise its new leather first class seats in the Mexican market, it translated its “Fly In Leather” campaign literally. Unfortunately, ‘vuela en cuero’ translated as ‘fly naked’.

18. For some reason, Puffs Tissues failed to clean up in Germany. Then someone realized that Puff is German slang for ‘brothel’.

19. The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, ‘Salem – Feeling Free’, was translated for the Japanese market as: “When smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”

20. Finally, here’s one just to show how marketers can get it wrong even when dealing with the (supposedly) same language. Following great success with a tagline in the UK, Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux decided to use it in America, not realizing the alternative meaning there of a key word: ‘Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.’ Well, the sales certainly did….

Article written by: Peter Wise is a freelance writer

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