International PR gone bad

Most recently, while working on a lecture on International PR, I asked colleagues on LinkedIn to supply me with additional examples on how international communication can go hilariously wrong. A big thanks to all who responded – the examples were so fascinating that I wanted to share them here. Should anyone have more examples to add, please do so!

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Elizabeth Rauber<o:p></o:p>

This is only a small example, but when I was working with an environmental consulting company, one of our clients wanted to name a residential real estate development in Southern California (where there is a huge Spanish speaking population) Casa de Borrachos because they thought it sounded nice, totally unaware that it translated to house of drunks.


Colin Wagner

There have been many incidences where auto manufactures have introduced a car into a foreign market under a specific name and had to change it because they didn’t research what the translation or meaning of the word is in that country. This seems to happen when American or Japanese companies enter a Latin or Spanish speaking country. One incident that relates to your country is when Rolls Royce introduced the Silver Mist in <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>Germany</st1:place></st1:country-region>. They had to change the name to Sliver Shadow because they didn’t want their car relating to manure.

More on this topic (in German, though) can be found here:

Joey Ng<o:p></o:p>

Similar to previous answers, Jif (the cleaning product) had to change their name to ‘Cif, because only English-speaking countries could say the word ‘Jif’.

To harmonise marketing and product inventories across the continent, Unilever changed it to ‘Cif’ so that people could pronounce the product name properly.


Greg Churilov <o:p></o:p>

While several incidents come to mind, I believe a good example was the introduction of Microsoft’s MapPoint in <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>India</st1:place></st1:country-region> in 2002. Microsoft showed Kashmir’s borders as per UN standards, indicating the disputed area with a prominently different color than the color used for <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>India</st1:place></st1:country-region>’s sovereign land. At the time (and I believe even today), implying that the Kashmir land was not part of <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>India</st1:place></st1:country-region> was considered Treason.
This led to a huge PR mess, with <st1:place st=”on”><st1:country-region st=”on”>India</st1:country-region></st1:place> threatening a massive recall, Pakistanis rallying behind the Microsoft decision, etc. <o:p></o:p>

Sahar Andrade<o:p></o:p>

there are plenty actually I am doing a radio interview next WED about this subject which involves Cultural diversity and marketing if you are interested I can send you a link to listen to the program
I have a lot of examples:
– Toyota MR2 cars when they tried to market it in France, it read NER DEUX (deux means 2 in french) but when you say it together it sounds like Sh*t in French
– When Ford tried to sell the NOVA cars in the latin market it was a mishap as in spanish “NO VA” means no go
– The Swedish furniture giant IKEA somehow agreed upon the name “FARTFULL” for one of its new desks
– “Traficante”, an Italian mineral water, found a great reception in Spain’s underworld. In Spanish it translates as “drug dealer“
– About ten years ago, Reebok was getting ready to start selling a new model of womens’ running shoe. They named this model of shoe the “Incubus”. Only when it was just about to go into stores did someone finally point out that they had named their new women’s shoe after a medieval demon who was said to rape women in their sleep.
– American Motors tried to market its new car, the Matador, based on the image of courage and strength. However, in <st1:place st=”on”>Puerto Rico</st1:place> the name means “killer” and was not popular on the hazardous roads in the country
– Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick”, a curling iron, into German only to find out that “mist” is slang for manure. Not too many people had use for the “manure stick”.


Adam Wooten<o:p></o:p>

A few of the examples above are myths that have been debunked (, but here is a recent blunder where racing car PR turned racist, then racy in translation: <o:p></o:p>

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Peggy Schoen<o:p></o:p>

In working on two continents over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the classic mistakes — the poorly researched product names, the unfortunate acronymns, etc. But I’d like to share with you an example that I think is much more nuanced but far more commonplace.

A few years ago at a communications seminar, I saw a video that had been produced for GM employees after the company had bought several international car brands and was trying to make employees around the world feel a part of the “GM family.” The “back then” portion of the video started with lots of vintage Chevy, Mom & Apple Pie type scenes and then transitioned to the “future” section that showed photos of Saabs and other GM-owned brands added into the mix.

Here’s what struck me about it – I was left with the impression that this was a company that saw it’s history as belonging only to the American brands. The “history” of the brands from the other countries — at least as far as that depiction was concerned — appar
ently started from the day they were purchased by GM. There was nothing, for example, about the fact that Saab was literally “born from jets” in the 1950s. It made me wonder how Saab’s employees in <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>Sweden</st1:place></st1:country-region> saw this video.

I guess the moral is that sometimes the biggest slights or offences in an international PR or any communications effort is what or who was simply not included.


Roger White<o:p></o:p>

Don’t forget the Coca Cola debacle in <st1:country-region st=”on”>Belgium</st1:country-region> a few years ago – trying to manage crisis communications from deep in the <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>US</st1:place></st1:country-region> when the problem was escalating at a local level and spreading across borders because they couldn’t react fast enough in real time. Classic case of Think Global but Act Local – or not in that case! <o:p></o:p>

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Ursula Pfahl, Ph.D.<o:p></o:p>

My favorite example: several years ago, a major <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>US</st1:place></st1:country-region> car company produced a new model named “Nova”. No problem in the <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>US</st1:place></st1:country-region>; sounded interesting enough. BIG proglem in <st1:country-region st=”on”><st1:place st=”on”>Mexico</st1:place></st1:country-region>: “no va” in Spanish, means “does not work.”
And who would want that kind of car?


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One Response to International PR gone bad

  1. Awsome article and straight to the point. I am not sure if this is truly the best place to ask but do you people have any ideea where to get some professional writers? Thanks 🙂

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