Business blogs, industry articles and even marketing textbooks are filled with case studies about brand blunders that never happened. Following part 1 and part 2 of our series on the marketing language blunders that happened, here are 9 often-cited stories that range from unlikely to outright debunked.
- [False] Marketing textbooks (including the ones I used) love to tell the story of the Chevrolet Nova. The name “Nova” is apparently close to “no va”, which translates to “Doesn’t Go” in Spanish, and this name was supposedly the reason why the product flopped in South America until their changed the name. Not true. The Nova sold well, and is still being sold under that name. And Nova ≠ No Va. As Snopes rightly points out, that would be equivalent to a table brand called “Notable” failing because English speakers thinks it means “No Table”. Furthermore, there are other Nova brands in the Spanish speaking world (Hispanosphere), including a former a Mexican leaded petrol brand.
- [False] Coca Cola expanded their popular water brand Dasani to the UK in 1999 with the advertising slogan “Can’t live without spunk”. They spent millions on their advertising campaign, not realizing “spunk” is a colloquial slang term for “semen”. This, so the story goes, is why the product failed. Not true. As explained in this fantastic video by Tom Scott, the failure was a reaction to premium bottled water being no more than treated tap water, following by a contamination scandal due to a bad batch of calcium chloride, resulting in a breach of the legal limit of bromate, a carcinogen. The resulting 2004 product recall was a final nail in the coffin for the brand.
- [False] No, “Colgate” does not mean “hang yourself” in Spanish, and Colgate toothpaste remains popular in the Hispanosphere. “CUEL ga te” can mean to get hung up or delayed. “Ahorcarse” is to hang yourself by the neck until dead.
- [False] Coors Beer’s 1983 “Turn it loose” Spanish campaign failed because the Spanish transliteration is slang for “get diarrhea”. This story is everywhere, claiming they used either “suéltalo con Coors” or “suéltate con Coors”. Not true, says David Wilton in his book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Coors never actually ran an ad campaign featuring either slogan.
- [Unlikely] Hair product company Clairol tried expanding the Mist Stick into Germany in 2006 but failed because “mist” in German means “manure” or “excrement.” I’m unable to find any verifiable proof of this, and according to one source this never happened. This likely started as someone confusing the 1960 Rolls Royce Mist example we gave in Part 2 of this series
- [Unable to verify, but likely true] In the 1970s, now defunct Wang Computers expanded to the UK with the slogan “Wang Cares”. Said out loud, this sounds an awful lot like “wankers”. Luckily their UK division caught this before the campaign launch.
- [Might be true] Supposedly Pepsi had a campaign with the slogan “Come alive with Pepsi”, which according to textbooks might have translated to the following in the Chinese and German markets: “Come alive out of the grave with Pepsi,” “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead,” or “Bring dead ancestors back from heaven.” Snopes have been unable to verify this.
- [Probably false] American chicken magnate Frank Perdue expanded his billboard campaign “it takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” to Mexico where it was mistranslated to be “It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused.” This story even makes its way to Epic Fail The Ultimate Book of Blunders By Mark Leigh. Before we had Snopes there was nationally syndicated newspaper column (founded 1973), book series and website The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams. Its web forum is also pretty good, and is the only source I can find on this story, with one post convincing me the story is unlikely.
- [Unable to verify] Toyota “Fiera” means “ugly old woman” in Puerto Rico.
- Part 1 and part 2 of this series of real blunders.
- Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends by David Wilton