In the office, we recently came across a familiar problem for marketers across the globe. Whilst reviewing a slogan for a client, the expression “on the job” stood out like a sore thumb. For most Americans this expression would simply mean “while performing one’s work,” however in the UK “on the job” can be a euphemism for having sex. This was a close shave for us; a marketing mistake narrowly avoided by an awareness and sensitivity of foreign cultures, in particular their precise use of certain idioms and colloquialisms.
Cultural misuse of words or expressions has long been an issue for marketers. We’ve all heard of the common translation problems that marketers have encountered when trying to launch a product abroad. Pepsi’s successful advertising slogan “Pepsi gives you zest for life” was famously translated for the Chinese market as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” When Chevrolet launched their Nova model into the Spanish market they were surprised to find out that “No va” means “won’t go.” Errors in translation are common and it’s often difficult to understand how they slip through the net.
What concerns us here though is the language barrier that has emerged between English speaking nations, most prominently between the US and the UK. In order to help branding teams avoid these potentially disastrous mistakes, it is necessary to identify a few obvious marketing faux pas. Firstly, something that most Americans and in fact most Brits wouldn’t even realise. “Making the connection” could easily be used as a marketing slogan but, if used in Britain, one could actually again be referring to the act of having sex. This is a phrase that you may be able to get away with, but isn’t it always better to be safe than sorry?
Next, a word that has already been used in a slogan by raisin giant Sunmaid. At one time the packet of their raisin box contained the suggestion “Why not try tossing over your favourite breakfast cereal?” In the UK “tossing” is in fact a slang word for masturbation, and so you can understand the cause for alarm.
Having recently arrived in Raleigh, NC for internships from the UK, I had to double take when I saw cars displaying ‘I love shagging’ bumper stickers. Having been informed that ‘shagging’ is a type of dance over here, needless to say I found it quite amusing. However, I met someone yesterday who took his English business client to a party where he was, perhaps slightly less (or more, depending on the client) amusingly, asked if he would like to ‘shag’. The English version of shagging may now have been made apparent to Americans thanks to the shagadelic international man of mystery Austin Powers, but the word remains a prime example of contrasting uses of the same language across the pond.
So is there a solution for marketers? Must they tiptoe around other countries as they write copy for their clients? The short answer is yes. If marketers want the product or service they’re endorsing to launch successfully in other countries they must take care about what they write and be sensitive to the language barrier with the country in question. Of course, it’s best not to be overly sensitive. For example, whilst it’s true that a select few might interpret “enjoying the evening” as yet another sexual euphemism, it would probably be safe to include this relatively harmless expression in a marketing slogan.
My advice: instead of running a simple spell-check, try urbandictionary.com – or hire an English intern.