Need a TRUE cross-cultural marketing blunder (not urban legend)

My author has used the “Nova = doesn’t go” legend as an example of a cross-cultural/international marketing blunder that actually happened. I’d like to disabuse him of this notion and provide an example of a real blunder – but I’m having trouble finding one. I’ know I’ve seen them in previous books I’ve edited, but of course I don’t have those handy. The relevant Snopes page is no help, unfortunately – I thought I’d seen some true ones there, but I guess I remembered wrong.

Can anyone point me to a real example? (Please check the Snopes link first – I don’t want to hear about “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” or even “African mothers think that jars of baby food contain ground-up babies.”) Thanks much!

How 'bout this recent one.

I recall being told by a friend who once work for the Wang computer company in Australia, that the company once aired a television commercial in Ausralia which announced to the Australian audience “Wang Cares” which sounded alot like “Wankers.”

Ooh, Photog, good one! (Why didn’t I remember that one – it was recent, too!) I thank thee heartily for the suggestion. But I’m a little leery of suggesting an alternative that’s not, er, rated G – this is a serious nonfiction textbook. (I’ll keep it in mind, though.)

Any “clean” examples?

Whoops, thank you too, 12! (May I call you “12”?)

The closest I’ve got is a coding start-up in New Zealand whose name was “Hot Source Graphics”. Their logo was a chili pepper. “Hot source” refers to good or quickly-written code; it happens to be pronounced the same as “hot sauce” by the company owners.

You might look up the veracity of the transliteration of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken into Chinese/Cantonese/Mandarin. I seem to recall someone saying the words they chose to sound most like “McDonald’s” (“Mi Xian O” or some such) happen also to translate to something like “Bread Labor Sweat”, and the impression it leaves is that one must work very very arduously for a long time to be able to afford a meal there. Which may or may not be true–I’ve certainly never been to the Mickey Dee’s in Beijing.

I seem to vaguely remember back in the late 60’s or early 70’s a Toyota “sports” type car named the Toyota TT. It only lasted six months or so and the name was dropped.

Obviously Toyota was trying to copy the macho American designations of SS and ST and thought TT would work.

Never realizing that TT (or tee tee) was hardly macho.

Here’s one –

I’m not sure whether this is cross-cultural, but Target has a brand for women’s clothing – Massimo – which is displayed in a manner that to me always looks like it says “MASSIVE” at first glance.

Audi doesn’t seem to have that problem.

There’s an article here that gives a few examples. I don’t know how well-researched it is, though.

One example of personal marketing: Actor Johnny Depp’s choice of acting name (or rather, his choice to stick to the name he was born with) causes a few smirks and snickers whenever he is mentioned in Germany. Depp (originating in Bavarian dialect but understood all over Germany) means idiot.

That isn’t necessarily to his disadvantage in that market, though - it certainly makes people more likely to remember his name.

See this site for photos. Nike apparently sold a shoe with the “flaming air” logo (if you squint, you can see the word “Air”) on the sides, heels, and (tragically!) the soles of the shoe. What they didn’t realize is that (a) their script looked very similar to the Arabic script word “Allah” and (b) in Middle Eastern cultures, the sole of the foot is a “dirty” body part, on par with one’s sphincter. To show the soles of one’s feet, or to step on a picture of someone, or to (gasp!) touch someone with the soles of one’s feet would be as offensive as doing the same act with one’s bare spread cheeks in a Western culture.

In Christian cultures, the Bible is the written word, and it is the meaning of those words that is holy; in Islam, the book itself is considered holy to some extent, and the written word is ascribed a certain amount of power. To write the name of God is to pray (broad generalization, but I’m trying to get a point across here). The point is, the written word “Allah” is ascribed more reverence there than the written word “God” is by most Christians. The Jewish practice of writing “G-d” or “YHWH” rather than the full name of God comes closer.

This makes the blunder extremely serious: you have inscribed a holy word on something unspeakably dirty, creating a rude paradox. Imagine K-Mart unwittingly selling T-shirts of the “Piss Christ” sculpture that caused such an uproar, and you’re close to understanding how large a blunder this was.

Not so much a marketing blunder, but in the early years when computer Mice were not terribly common Microsoft sent a shipment of computer mice to Canada. They were held up in customs in quarantine for a period of time because the shipping invoice listed the contents simply as “Mice” and no one opened the box.

One classic example (though I’n not sure that it can be called purely cross-cultural) is the World Health Organization’s abortive campaign in poster ads and other media: “WHO cares.” Apparently they weren’t familiar with the acerbic idiomatic use if the expression

This have become a staple joke in the international public public health arena (e.g. Stöhr K. Influenza-WHO cares. Lancet Infect Dis. 2002 Sep;2(9):517. and “WHO cares? Poverty, War and Debt”, presented by the People’s Health Movement -at WHO’s invitation- at the World Health Assembly on 13 May 2002), and though I couldn’t find a picture of the posters in a quick web search (it dated back to the pre-web era), the expression still pops up in UN publications in recent years, independently of the original (e.g. “What Will Life Be Like in the Twenty-First Century? Who Cares? WHO Cares.” United Nations Chronicle, Vol. XXXVI, No 1 [1999])

I didn’t look too hard for the poster, but you might want to invest a few minutes before using this example. I checked my usual sites, and didn’t find a debunking, but it sounds so painfully ULish that I almost doubt my own recollection of seeing the poster on the MBTA

12 will be fine…

I forgot about the Audi TT.

I work at an auto auction and did notice one the other day. About 20 of us were cracking up after I pointed it out. ----------- “What were they thinking”?

I would never buy any car named a tee tee if I wanted to seem macho. I doubt very many American males would.

I was at ECTS in London a few years ago looking at new video games. (ECTS is the European game trade show – their equivalent of E3.)

Suddenly across the show floor I caught a glimpse of a sell sheet for a new children’s title. It was made by a Danish company but was being localized into English … obviously by someone who had little grasp of American slang:

Stinky & Beaver’s Wood Olympics

It was made worse by the fact that the “&” in the logo was reeeally small … .

The game was perfectly innocent … a skunk and a beaver have a sports competition in the forest … .

Someone must have warned them, because they have since changed the name. I don’t think it ever was sold in stores with the original title. But if you go to their website you can still see a small box mock-up with the original “Stinky Beaver” title visible.

Actually TT reminds me of Tourist Trophy which if my memory is correct was the precursor to the modern Grand Prix. Though the term TT now seems only to be connected to the two famous TT’s still be run today the Dutch TT MotoGP in Assen and the Isle of Man TT.

More on Allah. In 1992, the Yokohama tire company took a bath with one of their tire designs because the tread pattern resembled the Arabic word for “Allah.” You’ll need a better cite than this subgenius page, though. I know that Road and Track had a blurb about the incident around that time, too.