1. The best deal ever, courtesy of Hoover.
To get people to buy their products, the Hoover vacuum company promised customers free airfare between Europe and the US, as long as they bought a product that cost over 100 pounds. (This was in the U.K.) The company probably predicted that most customers wouldn’t stop to read the fine print, but when there are free tickets to New York, you bet they will. Knowing a killer bargain when they saw one, 100,000 customers cashed-in on the deal, a huge loss for the company. Hey, at least Hoover was getting their name out there.
2. Habitat for Iran?
Habitat UK, the British home good outlet, decided to step up their social media game in 2009 to boost their online presence and gain a following. This was around the time that media like Twitter had begun to truly establish themselves and corporations were desperate to make their mark in the new technology. Habitat, ever the geniuses, decided to use popular hashtags that were trending on Twitter at the time to get more followers. The problem was that these included tags like “Iran” and “Mousavi,” neither of which were in the market for an English sofa. Followers were obviously outraged that the company was using out political turmoil to hock home furnishings, and Habitat UK got the attention they were looking for after all.
3. This product is so good you will throw up.
Every trying to compete with Apple, Microsoft has tried just about everything they can to keep up. By far the best grab at attention took place in 2009, when the company asked Dean Cain to star in their Internet Explorer 8, in which a wife asks to use her husband’s computer. When she sees the amazing technology installed on the device, she instantly loses her lunch. The ad was titled “O.M.G. I.G.P.,” which translates to “Oh My God, I’m Gonna Puke.” Although the ad was a funny idea, Microsoft didn’t realize that their users don’t want to associate the product with vomit and the campaign was an epic failure. Poor Dean Cain.
4. Viva la Vodafone!
In 2011, Vodafone released what might be the most self-aggrandizing ad campaign in history. The company, popular in Egypt, took credit for the Arab Spring, saying that their “Power to You” slogan helped inspire the revolution. An ad created by JWT featured tweets and texted from protesters to show how incendiary the service had been during that time. The ad states, “”We didn’t send people to the street, we didn’t start the revolution…We only reminded Egyptians how powerful they are.”
The best response came from Mohammed El-Dhashan, a popular Arab blogger:
“I mean, never mind the years of activism, the protests, the decades of cumulated grievances, the terrible economic situation, the trampled political freedoms, the police brutality, the torture, etc. Nah, we just watched a Vodafone ad and thought: ‘Hey! We’re powerful! Let’s topple the president!'”
5. Let them wear Cole.
However, Vodafone wasn’t the only one getting in one the Arab Spring action. In spring of 2011, Kenneth Cole was attempting to market its new looks and sent out a tongue-in-cheek tweet to spread the word. The problem? It was hugely offensive. The tweet read: “Millions are in uproar in Cairo. Rumor is they heard about our new spring collection.” Even better, the tweet came directly from Cole himself, as the message was signed “KC” at the end.
6. Ted Turner is blowing up your airwaves.
Cartoon Network came up with a brilliant idea in 2007. To promote one of their forthcoming cartoons, the Ted Turner-owned children’s entertainment channel hung LED signs all over Boston with an animated character from the show. The problem was that the drawing for the little guy looked like a virus, and residents thought the LED signs were bombs. This terrorism threat shut down transportation in the city — from buses and trains to roads. The president of Cartoon Network was quickly canned and the blunder cost the channel $2 million in emergency response repayment.
7. Mr. T hates gay people.
An infamous 2007 spot from Snickers attempted to capitalize on the image of Mr. T to sell their product, as they have successfully done with Betty White. Their White campaign was so successful that it even helped relaunch the octogenarian actress’ career. However, no such with their Mr. T ad. Titled “Get Some Nuts,” the ad features Mr. T mocking the gait of an effeminate speed walker, who he shoots with Snickers bars (through a Gatlin gun?) to correct the behavior. LGBT groups quickly denounced the ad for being homophobic, responding back that they had all the nuts they need. None for you, Snickers.
8. Chocolate, now with Diet HIV.
An appetite suppressant brand came up with a great idea: How do you market chocolate to a consumer base of health-conscious women? Simple, sell them diet chocolate — all the taste, half the calories. The problem was that although the company was successful in the 70s, they were trying to re-launch their brand in the 80s, when the HIV epidemic had shocked the nation, leaving millions dead or withering away from disease. The company’s name? AYDS.
9. Skittles kill people.
A 2008 ad, “Touch the Rainbow,” from Skittles featured a man with the Midas Touch: everything he touches turns to Skittles. It’s a clever idea, and in the commercial, the man is asked to demonstrate his gift by turning a stapler into Skittles. However, the tone of the commercial abruptly changes — when we find out the man accidentally killed someone on the bus today, when he shook his hand. Skittles Midas opens his hand to reveal a pile of Skittles and says, “He’ll never see his family again.” While darkly funny and ballsy, the ad went over poorly with customers, who were implicitly told that Skittles means death.
10. The zombie apocalypse, now sponsored by Pepsi.
Although New Coke is a famous blunder, an even funnier example of a soda brand getting it totally wrong was from Pepsi’s ill-fated attempt to expand to China. The slogan for the expansion was meant to be “Pepsi brings you back to life,” which already has creepy undead overtones on its own. However, the line was horribly bungled and mistranslated as: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.”
It’s almost as bad as Mexico’s “Got Milk?” campaign, which accidentally asked readers, “Are You Lactating?” and the Parker Pen, which got stuck on the word “embrazar,” which they thought meant “embarrass.” So instead of saying “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you,” they told buyers, “It won’t leak in your pocket and get you pregnant.” Good to know.
11. Coke, the best oral money can buy.
However, Coke also stepped in it when they expanded to China, due to an unfortunate mistranslation error. The company claims that the expansion was strategically planned and that their marketers researched over 10,000 Chinese characters to come up with the perfect slogan, that campaign had some problems. First off, they came up with, “Happiness in the mouth,” which sounds like blowjob code. In addition, rumor has it that Chinese store owners produced their own unofficial material for the brand, after learning that the product would be sold locally. Their slogans read either “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect of the reader.
12. This car is a no go.
Possibly the most famous international translation error came from Chevy’s Nova, which the automobile company tried to sell in Latin America. Although Americans know that our cars have a tougher time selling outside the U.S., the car’s name proved an even bigger challenge for marketers. When translated to Spanish, “Nova” means “no go,” and it sounded like Chevy was trying to sell a car that didn’t run. As if American gas mileage weren’t enough of a reason not to buy it in the first place.
13. The famous Gerber story.
You’ve probably heard about the time that Gerber tried to sell its products in Africa with their signature logo on the front, a picture of an adorable bouncing baby on the front. The problem is that foods are commonly identified in Africa by their label, so a picture of an apple would denote that the product contains apples, and customers thought Gerber was selling babies.
Except that’s not true. It’s a common myth. However, the company did have some issues selling their baby products in France. If you speak French, you can guess why. “Gerber” means “to vomit” in French. In having French language problems, they join the Audi E-Tron. “Tron” means “poop” in French.
Gerber, Pepsi and Audi aren’t alone in their translation woes. Sega means “to masturbate” in Italian, the “waterpick” (or “vandpik”) translated to “morning erection” in Danish, and Hulu means either “cease” or “desist” in Swahili. Clairol’s Mist Stick also ran into some problems in Germany, where “mist” means shit. Guess I won’t be drinking a Sierra Mist in Munich anytime soon.