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Three ad fails that show international marketing is about more than words

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Aug 29, 2022 12:00:00 AM

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Everyone knows that when companies go global, their marketing campaigns run the risk of translation fails. But sometimes, these errors go beyond words.

Here are two ads and one advertising legend that show that not all international advertising fails can be chalked up to bad translation alone.

1. A picture’s worth a thousand words…from a difficult past

When Japanese company Toyota introduced its Prado model to the Chinese market, it released what, to many people, seems like a totally inoffensive print ad: an image of the car, with buildings in the background and two traditional stone lion statues beside it.

Unfortunately, these stone lions resemble those on the Marco Polo Bridge, the site of a 1937 battle between Japanese and Chinese forces that’s considered the start of the second Sino-Japanese War. to make matters worse, “Prado” is similar to the Chinese word badao, which can be translated as “to rule by force”.

These details may seem like they’d go unnoticed, especially decades after the event in question. But that was not the case. Toyota ended up having to publish apologies for the cultural misunderstanding in numerous Chinese print publications.

2. In Saudi Arabia and Israel, drinking soda makes you die of thirst.

There’s a story that’s become a bit of a legend for fans of advertising and language. It goes like this:

In Saudi Arabia or Israel (depending on who you hear the story from), advertisers from the US came up with what seemed like a perfectly straightforward ad for a cola drink, in the form of three comic book-like panels that read from left to right. The first panel on the left shows a man lying on the desert sand, looking as if he’s dying of thirst. In the second panel, we see a cartoon-like image of him drinking a can of cola. And in the final panel, he’s now recharged and running along the desert dunes.

….The only problem is, the advertisers forgot that people who speak and read Arabic or Hebrew read comic-like images from right to left, not left to right. For a majority of their target audience, then, their ad would show that drinking soda leaves you dying of thirst.

While this example was never actually released to any market, it serves as an excellent warning for advertisers: It’s not just what language people read in, but how they read images.

3. Volvic makes things weird by trying to anticipate an ad fail.

Usually, advertising fails happen because of an ad that outraged consumers, but in one particular case, the offense occurred without the ad campaign ever launching.

In 2016, bottled water brand Volvic was set to release its “Orange and Proud” ad campaign in the UK and Ireland. The ads promoted the brand’s orange-flavored beverages and featured red-haired people. But just before their launch, Volvic pulled them from Irish and Scottish markets.

As we covered in a previous post on translation and transcreation fails, in Ireland, the color orange is often associated with Irish Protestants and, by extension, the conflict between this group and the Irish Catholics, notably The Troubles. Danone, who owns the Volvic brand, made a last-minute decision to err on the side of caution in order to avoid offending anyone.

While some fellow advertisers understood, many others, as well as members of the general public, felt that pulling the ad was an exaggerated and unnecessary act. It may have even stirred up some new ire, with Ulster Parliament representative Tom Elliott commenting on the fact that many brands advertise products that are “green”, a color associated with Irish Catholics, so why shy away from mentioning orange?

Each of these fails happened for different reasons, but they all could have been saved by the same thing: transcreation. Transcreators adapt content to fit not only a target market’s language, but also its culture, current needs, and history. Successful overseas marketing starts with accurate translation. But as these examples show, communicating across cultures is, ultimately, about more than language alone.

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