Translation Gone Bad: Infamous Marketing Busts

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Translation Gone Bad: Infamous Marketing Busts

Guest Post by Freddy De La Rosa.

In the age of freely available translation technologies, it’s easy to get complacent and just rely on direct, word-for-word translations for all of our marketing assets.  But sometimes, doing too good of a translation can end up sending the wrong marketing message!  

There’s really no substitute for marketers to have a true understanding of both the foreign language and the culture when bringing a product to a new market.  Understanding foreign idioms is also key.  Let’s take a look at what might happen if you just try to “wing it”.

When Marketing Gets Lost in Translation

Unspoken Meaning

Every language in the world has different rules that give different shape or significance to its words and phrases. It is not only about knowing all of the individual words; it is about understanding the impact that they have, and differentiating how, when, where, why, and under which circumstances we should use them. This is something that a computer or any technological device cannot do for you, which is why we should take advantage of our brain’s ability to think, using techniques that stimulate our cognitive processes, in order for us to consciously understand how to use words in a foreign language.

To illustrate, we make reference to a series of somewhat humorous examples that show what can happen when we assume that a computer can speak or send a proper message for us. In the following examples, we will see how companies or people have translated correctly word for word, but have failed in the attempt of sending the right message:

Marketing Fails

– In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

– General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova (a name that attempts to associate to the idea of new, or innovation) in South America; they was apparently unaware that “no va” means “it won’t go.” [Update: This has been pointed out to be a mis-translation urban legend.]

– Ford had a similar problem in Brazil when the Pinto (a word trying to make reference to Pinto horses, a wild horse breed in North America) flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Ford pried all the nameplates off and substituted Corcel, which means a Stallion horse.  On the other hand, Ford’s Fiera (direct translation of fierce) doesn’t do well with Spanish-speaking Latin-Americans, since “Fiera” means “ugly old woman.”

– Chicken-man Frank Perdue’s slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” got terribly mangled in another Spanish translation. A photo of Perdue with one of his birds appeared on billboards all over Mexico with a caption that explained, “it takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused.”

-When American Airlines wanted to advertise its new leather first class seats in the Mexican market, it translated its “Fly in Leather” campaign literally, which meant “Fly Naked” (“vuela en cuero”) in Spanish!

-Pizza Hut is advertising their new dish, a calzone they named the P’Zone. It is pronounced like “pezón”, the Spanish word for “nipple.”

-The Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux tried to sell its goods in America but didn’t help itself with this slogan, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

-The Dairy Association’s huge success with the campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention that the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?”

Translate (Very Well) Before You Market!

In retrospect, before shelling out the cash for these campaigns, these big and very well known multinational companies probably should have hired some native speakers who understood the significance of their slogans in the language at hand. Instead, they probably chose to rely on technological tools that are not capable of analyzing communication in a specific context or situation.

This is something that we think about here at Brainscape, which is why our language apps provide users with hints on how to use words and phrases correctly under specific circumstances. That way, they can avoid the embarrassment (and sometimes cost!) of making mistakes like the ones above!

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .


Dan 8 years ago

I hate to be a downer, but you should probably remove the line about the Chevy Nova -- though it's frequently cited as a "translation error," evidence for it is apocryphal at best. It's one of those old wives' tales that's been floating around for a while, but I think it's safe to call it debunked by now.

Amanda Moritz 8 years ago

Hey, Dan, thanks for the update. We're takin' it down.

Paul Edgar 8 years ago

Good stories about translations gone bad - some new ones for me. I've told the "Chevy no va" story myself many times. The story of how it became an "urban myth" is an interesting one itself -

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