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Sometimes It Just Gets Lost in Translation

March 16, 2016

For businesses to succeed in a foreign market, it is important to understand how both words and situations appeal to the international consumer. When this isn't done correctly, it can have disastrous results. Unfortunately, many U.S. businesses had to learn their lessons the hard way. Chad Brooks, senior writer for Business News Daily, identified eight great examples of translation blunders that had previously correctly performed in their country of origin.



In the early 1970s, American Motors wanted to market its new midsize car in Puerto Rico. They quickly discovered that it isn't just the marketing message that has to be accurately translated — sometimes it is the product name. Everyone at American Motors were eager to launch the "Matador" in a Latino-based market only to discover after the fact that translated it means "Killer". The campaign was a huge blunder in a country that is plagued with bad roads and many auto accidents.



One of the marketing darlings of the 1980s, Braniff Airlines was always looking for a great tagline. In the United States, the airline launched its "Fly in Leather" campaign to hype its new leather seats for consumers. South of the Border, the Spanish translation was "Vuela en Cuero". Although totally appropriate throughout much of Latin America, in Mexico, it translates as "Fly Naked" — not exactly what Braniff meant to convey.



When the American beer maker decided to use a popular campaign slogan from its marketing department in the United States, no one every stop to see how the tagline would translate into Spanish. The brewer was on a Rocky Mountain High with their "Turn It Loose" campaign only to discover that translated into Spanish the marketing message was "Suffer from Diarrhea." Needless to say no one wanted to "Turn It Loose."



Although Americans are likely the world's leader in spending millions of dollars on poorly thought out media campaigns, sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. Such was the case when Swedish vacuum cleaner manufacturer Electrolux failed to notice how their message "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux" was received by American buyers. In this case, the wording was grammatically correct but some U.S. buyers didn't know it referred to the vacuum cleaner's high power.



The Detroit-based automobile manufacturer learned the hard way that not all phrases translate to the same when a foreign language is involved. Executives launched a campaign in Belgium utilizing the company's "Every car has a high-quality body", only to discover that the translated slogan read "Every car has a high-quality corpse." Not exactly the image Ford had hope consumers would visualize in their minds.



Now known overseas as "The world's private bank", costly problems (estimated at $10 million in marketing costs) arose when a popular stateside campaign called "Assume Nothing" got lost in translation. The translation in many countries where the global private banking giant released the campaign read "Do Nothing." Obviously not the message the bank wanted to convey to overseas clients.



Kentucky Fried Chicken wanted to make a great impression when they opened their first fast-food fried chicken restaurants in China during the late 1980s. If you asked people on the streets in the United States whose slogan is "Finger Lickin' Good", KFC would be the dominant answer. Unfortunately for KFC marketing executives, the phrase translates in China to "Eat Your Fingers Off." However, the company survived the blunder and ranks number-one today for fast food brands in China.



Not only do words and phrases get lost in translation, using folklore in overseas marketing campaigns can be a bit tricky too. In America, we've all seen illustrations of storks delivering babies to their parents. When Proctor & Gamble started selling their Pampers brand of disposable diapers in Japan, the company stuck with their traditional packaging. This caused significant confusion among consumers as Japanese folklore has giant floating peaches delivering their newborns.


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