Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Reset or Overcharge?

Posted on: March 6, 2009

I was listening to NPR on the car radio while I was driving to the theater tonight for my last performance as Darwin in the Lincoln/Darwin plays.  There was a piece about Hillary Clinton exchanging gifts with her Russian diplomatic counterpart.  It seems she tried to give him a “reset” button, as a tongue-in-cheek fillip for both countries to reset their relationship.  Except the State Department folks got the word wrong — Russian is one tough language — and instead of using the Russian word for “reset,” they used the word for “overcharge.”

It got me thinking of the classic marketing blunders that I collected during my years in international business.  Here are some of my favorites.

When Coca-Cola first came to China, there were hundreds of ways that the words “Coca-Cola” could be rendered in Chinese.  (Chinese is a tonal language, with five tone levels.  A four syllable word can be pronounced 5 to the 4th power ways.)  It turned out that the one that sounded best to the ears of the American boss, and the one which was used for the introduction of the product in China, meant either “bite the wax tadpole,” or “pregant horse.”  The Chinese employees were too polite to tell the boss what he had done, and sales of “Bite the Wax Tadpole Cola” were — well, let’s just say they were less than forecast.

Eventually, someone told him what was going on, and they changed the name to something that sounded identical to him, but meant “nectar of the gods, you will have a thousand sons.”  Sales skyrocketed, and the rest is history.

When Ford introduced the Pinto in Brazil, there were few sales to men.  It turns out that Pinto is Brazilian Portugese slang for “small penis.”

Another Brazilian marketing blunder was made by Waterman pens.  At the time, Waterman’s U.S. advertising slogan was, “It won’t leak and embarrass you.”  The translator wasn’t all that good in Portugese and used the word, “embarrazer.”  Sounds like “embarrass,” doesn’t it?  Wrong.  It means “to make pregnant.”  So until the advertising program was changed, Waterman pens in Brazil wouldn’t “leak and make you pregnant.”

Remember the old Coors advertising campaign, “Turn it loose.”  The translator for a South American ad campaign didn’t understand just what the benefits of the product were, and Coors was released with a campaign to help people move their bowels.

I’ve got hundreds more, but I’ve got to get to into my Darwin costume now and start practicing my phony British accent.

1 Response to "Reset or Overcharge?"

Hi. My fiance, Valerie Jeffers, your Nationwide agent, sent me to your site today. I am an actor and singer so she thought I should know of your site. I have heard of you. I’m so glad she did. I needed a good laugh today and this article just tickled my sense of humor 5 to the 4th power. Presently, Denver is doing a monsoon impression and I am locked tightly in my apartment. The timing couldn’t be more perfect and I don’t have to tell you how important timing is. I just did though. Sorry. I find writing to a writer intimidating. Thanks for the laughs and if you ever need an actor for one of your readings please contact me. It would be an honor to play in your words.

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