15 Brand Failures: Advertising Mistakes & Cultural Blunders

By on February 8, 2014

brand failures - advertising mistakesWith global brands, the issue of homogenization of the brand communication into the local language (specially in Latin America and East Asian countries) is of critical importance. But when such brands ignore proper research or are simply careless, the mistakes that happen are often quite hilarious, even though they are unintentional. Such brand failures or advertising blunders happen for no fault of the product and result in millions of dollars of wasted money simply because a few people were careless enough to not do proper research before the ad campaign or brand launch.

Given below are 15 such advertising faux pas.

Pepsi in China

When Pepsi used their slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” in China by literally translating it, they didn’t know that the literal translation of the slogan meant, “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”! They soon realized their mistake and the campaign didn’t last very long.

Coke in China

Coca Cola is famous for its mistakes in the eastern countries like China and Taiwan. In China, when Coca Cola had to translate its name in Mandarin, they chose ‘Ke-Kou-Ke-La’, very unwisely because it meant, “bite the wax tadpole” or “a female horse stuffed with wax”. Soon enough they realized their mistake and changed the translation to “ko-kou-ko-le” which meant “happiness in the mouth.” Not perfect, but much better than a wax tadpole!

Coke in Cuba

Coke once again. In cuba, Coca Cola wanted to write “Tome Coca Cola” (drink Coca Cola) in the sky. Grand intentions there. Only they didn’t take into consideration the wicked wind which blew a letter of the sign and made it “Teme Coca Cola”, which meant “fear Coca Cola”. The company tried to rectify the mistake by producing a lithograph of bull fighting. Which turned out to be a bigger mistake because bull fighting is illegal in Cuba.

Chi Chi

Chi Chi’s the Mexican food chain is of American origin. Perhaps that’s the reason why they didn’t know that Chi Chi’s in Mexican slang means breasts. Interestingly another company by the name Chi Chi’s makes salsa and has a slogan “good no matter what.” Of course!

Mensa in Spain

Mensa, the international society of high IQ people, would probably find it difficult to be accepted in Spanish speaking countries. In Spanish, Mensa means “stupid woman”, quite the opposite of a regular Mensa member. Mensa comes from the Latin word for “table.” In German Mensa means “cafeteria”.

KFC in China

In 2002 KFC released their slogan “finger lickin’ good” in China. Unfortunately for them, even after research, they made a translated version which meant, “Eat your fingers off”.

Got Milk in Mexico

After the huge success of “Got Milk” campaign, the Dairy Board of California decided to run these ads in Mexico. But they soon realized that the Spanish translation meant “are you lactating?” Coors, the beer company also made a similar mistake when they translated their slogan “turn it loose” into Spanish as “suffer from diarrhea.”

Gerber Foods in Africa

When the US baby foods company Gerber started selling their products in Africa, they adopted the same packaging design as in US, with beautiful pictures of babies on their labels. What they didn’t know was that in Africa, because of non English speaking population, it was standard practice for companies to put pictures of the product ingredients on the label.

Ford in South America

In South America Ford started marketing its car “Pinto” in 1971. It was a small car that was supposed to compete with other imported small cars in the Latin American market. But the company soon realized that in spite of its best efforts the car was not selling as it should have. Turns out, in Brazil “Pinto” is a slang for small penis. Now who would pay money for that!

Parker in Latin America

Another mistake in Latin America. This time it’s the Parker Company. While trying to market their leak proof pens, they  translated their line “it won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”, into something in Spanish which actually meant “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” The culprit was a single word. The company assumed “embarazar” meat “to embarrass”. But it actually meant “to impregnate”.

Vicks in Germany

When Vicks introduced their cough drops in the German market, they were probably unaware that “v” in German, is pronounced as “f” and when replaced with “v” in the brand name, became the guttural equivalent of what is generally a slang for “sexual intercourse”.


When Clairol, the hair products company, introduced the “Mist Stick” – a curling iron – in Germany, they were chagrined to find out that “mist” is a German slang for manure. Now who would purchase a “manure stick”.

Proctor & Gamble in Japan

What can be a sexual tease in one culture can be downright inappropriate in another. And when an American company doesn’t realize this, what results in another advertising blunder. When P&G launched one of it’s brand in Japan with an ad that showed a woman bathing and her husband entering the bathroom and touching her, the Japanese rejected the ad and the brand, because they consider this, an inappropriate behavior and in poor taste.

Puffs in Germany

When Puffs introduced their tissues in Germany, they realized, much to their dismay that “Puff” in German is a slang for a “whorehouse”. German must have had a hard time figuring if they were buying tissues or some else.

General Motors in Latin America

When General Motors introduced the Chevy nova in South America, they were oblivious to the fact that “no va” in Spanish meant “it won’t go”. When sales didn’t pick up for the car (after all who would buy a car that won’t go!), they realized their mistake and renamed the car Caribe, for Spanish markets.

What we can learn from these Brand Failures?

Brand building in foreign markets in a tricky exercise. Not only are you dealing with a foreign language that perhaps no one in your team is aware of, you also have to deal with numerous subtle nuances of the local culture and language that only a local can make out.

So in depth research about the local culture, it’s society, it’s political and religious sentiments, it’s colloquial terminologies needs to be thoroughly researched before translating a brand name or an advertising slogan. If the existing brand name sounds weird in local language, it’s always a good idea to keep a new brand name for the local market.

Not just the name, the packaging of the product, the flavors, the way it is presented in the market, should also be researched thoroughly to identify an conflicts it may be having with the local culture.

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