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Lost in Translation

April 27, 2009

Offensive or funny? Honest mistake or pushing the envelope? In advertising and communications, there is a thin and often crossed line between just enough and too far. Some brands toe the line intentionally, looking to cause a stir, while others are thrown over it unexpectedly, due to a translation issue or a communication faux pas at some point in the process that leads to consumer backlash. And as our global village grows and more and more brands take their business, products and services to the international stage, the opportunity for these faux pas grows as well. Whether it be an advertising campaign, a brochure or a business meeting agenda, ensuring proper cross cultural translation can be the difference between the perfect pitch and a disaster.


Obvious as it may seem, there are countless issues with just simple word translation. Consider the infamous Ford Pinto release in Brazil. The Pinto sales bombed because no one wanted to drive a car that was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals”. Or when US pen maker Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico. The copy line “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you,” was translated to “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” Funny? Yes. Bad for business? Yes. Avoidable? Yes.  


Often times it goes beyond just simple translation. Last year, Fiat released an ad in Italy in which actor Richard Gere drives a Lancia Delta from Hollywood to Tibet. Gere is known for being an outspoken supporter of the Dalai Lama, and therefore has quite the negative reputation in China. The ad caused an online uproar and Chinese message boards were flooded with comments from consumers saying they would never buy a Fiat car. Similarly, the EA Sports  mantra “Challenge Everything” didn’t sit well in some religious or hierarchical societies where harmonious relationships are maintained through the values of respect and non-confrontation.



And sometimes it is the humor that just doesn’t translate. Just yesterday, advertising giant Burger King retracted an advertising campaign after complaints over an ad that featured a short Mexican wrestler wearing a cape bearing a resemblance to the Mexican flag. Jorge Zemeno, the Mexican ambassador to Spain, objected publicly and many Mexican-Americans have voiced strong displeasure with the ads. While BK is known for pushing the envelope, it’s unlikely they want this on their record.  

So, whether you are trying to push the envelope or not, make sure you are making an informed decision. Culture and language go hand in hand and are very powerful tools. Even if you are thinking globally, be sure you recognize the locale. And this go way beyond just language, into everything  from the types of numbers, colors and symbols that are used. The key here is to do your research. Know your market or audience. Test your materials in the target markets in which they’ll be running. A little effort on the upfront could save you from a disaster down the line.

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