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The Seven Funniest Marketing Mistranslations

Oct 2014

Language ,

When Translations Go Wrong

In our globalised world, international corporations often struggle to effectively communicate their brand to new markets. It is especially bad when they attempt to directly translate slang or a joke that only really works in the one language. Here are seven of the worst offenders:


1. Come Fly With Me, But Put Clothes On First  

In the mid 80s, Braniff International Airways was an elite, luxury airline. Their previous success marketing campaign coined the phrase, ‘when you got it – flaunt it’. A hugely successful effort that has now entered the vernacular. Their follow-up? Not so successful.

Their airplanes furnished with plush leather seats, the Braniff marketing team landed on the slogan, ‘fly in leather’. Not particularly catchy, but in-keeping with the airline’s aspirational brand. Translated for Mexican and Latin American markets, however, that became a different matter. A radio advertisement encouraged Spanish-speaking listeners to fly ‘en cuero’, meaning in leather. The problem was that ‘cuero’ has a homonym: ‘cueros’. The classy airline had just told the public to ‘fly naked’.


2. A Parker Pen Is…

You may notice that many of these translation blunders come when English is being translated into Spanish. This is because the Mexican and Latin American market is often the first foreign-language market American companies enter. This certainly happened when the Parker Pen Company tried to sell their Quink Pen (Quink being a portmanteau of quick and ink) to the Mexican Market.

In English Parker’s slogan promised that the Quink pen ‘won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you’. In Spanish the promise was slightly different: ‘no te embarazará chorreándose en tu bolsillo’. In other words, the pen won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you. Now, that’s embarrassing!

(Spanish-speakers wouldn’t use ‘embarazar’ for this purpose. Instead they would use the phrase ‘tengo vergüenza’, which means ‘I have shame’.)


3. Of Coors It Doesn’t Mean That!

Translating formal language is difficult; translating slang verbatim can often be impossible.  Legend has it that when Coors brought their ‘Turn It Loose’ campaign to Spanish-speaking markets, their tagline translated into ‘suffer from diarrhea’.


4. Laputa: Castle in the Why

The Mazda Laputa was a successful model for the car-manufacturer, available as a 3-door hatchback or 5-door stationwagon, and was in production for seven years, between 1999-2006. Laputa was a fictional flying island in Gulliver’s Travels, before the Mazda marketers chose it for their new car. Unfortunately, ‘la puta’ also means ‘the whore’ in Spanish. Comedians could get a lot of mileage out of that.

(In the category of bad car names, special mention also has to go to the Nissan Moco [or the Nissan ‘Bogey’], the Ford Pinto [or the Ford ‘Small Penis’] and the Mitsubishi Pajero [or the Mitsubishi ‘Wanker’].)


5. Milking it  

Voted in a USA Today Poll as one of the most successful campaigns in history, The Dairy Association’s ‘Got Milk?’ campaign curdled when it was translated for Mexican Market. Got Milk? became, ‘are you lactating?’


6. Pepsi: The Zombies’ Drink of Choice  – Ouija Mean?

In 1963, Pepsi put in its lot with the emergent baby boomers, whose youthful, counter-culture energy was throwing off the shackles of 50s conformity. Their ebullient slogan was, ‘Come alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!’ Unfortunately, when this same campaign was later rolled out in a newly capitalist China it was translated to: ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave!’


7. Wolf Whistle

Ikea’s Lufsig is a stuffed toy wolf, inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. The name is derived from the Swedish verb ‘lufsa’, meaning ‘to lumber’. Lufsig was literally hurled into infamy when it became a symbol of opposition in Hong Kong. In December 2013, a protester flung a Lufsig doll at the unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, who had been nicknamed ‘the wolf’.

Soon after this incident, Cantonese online shoppers hoping to get their own insurrectionary wolf doll discovered that the Chinese translation of Lufsig,  Lo Mo Sai  (路姆西), sounded in Cantonese like ‘your mother’s vagina’. (The name contains a homophone of Hai (閪), Cantonese for ‘vagina’.)

Given the bizarre political context, what should have been a marketing catastrophe turned Lufsig into a huge success. The majority of Ikea shops in Hong Kong soon sold out.


Further research tells me that a few of these might actually be urban legends, but, as the saying goes, never let the truth get in the way of a good story! If you’ve seen any terrible translations, let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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