Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Lincoln

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.

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!