Funny You Should Say That! Enjoy a Refreshing Wax Tadpole

When pain is wry and rye!

By John Cadley

Now that business has gone global, advertising people have to be careful what they say. Given the differences in languages across countries and cultures, you might have a billboard that says, “Taste Our Delicious Fruit Cereal” in English but means, “Go Eat a Banyan Tree” in Nigerian. In fact, many such gaffes already have become the stuff of marketing lore.

There was the sporting goods company that created an ad in which a celebrity athlete slayed a dragon to demonstrate the strength of the product he was endorsing. This played well in countries where the dragon is a figure to be feared; not so well in China, where the dragon is a symbol of power and wisdom. I may be going out on a limb here, but trying to make friends with the world’s largest emerging market by punching the symbol of its history, culture and religion in the nose doesn’t strike me as the best way to go.

Then there was the classic case of the Chevy Nova, so named to evoke the transcendent image of a bright, shining star. Wonderful idea, unless you happen to live in Spain, where nova means “won’t go.” I can only imagine the guy in a Barcelona café having a few pops and reading advertising copy that says:

“You’ll go everywhere in the Chevy Won’t Go. Take the kids to school, pick up the groceries, head off to the beach – wherever you’re going, you can rely on the Won’t Go to go, go, go!” At this point I’m thinking he puts the paper down and decides to lay off the hard stuff for a while.

In French, the English word “pet” means flatulence, so we wouldn’t want to talk about any animal food products that make your pet healthier than it’s ever been. And just to show you how truly contrarian the French can be, our word for pain is their word for bread. Pity the poor Parisian who reads an American advertisement for hair-replacement treatments with “minimal pain” and wonders if the treatment includes strapping a small loaf of sourdough to his head.

Traveling eastward, we come to the teeming markets of Japan, where our phonetic word for laughter – “ha-ha” – is their word for “mother.” I can imagine an American TV spot where someone erupts into a series of ha-ha’s and the Japanese sit and wonder why this guy thinks his mother is so funny.

Then it’s over to the British Isles, where their word for underwear is the American word “pants.” Not knowing this, a fashion writer on Madison Avenue may talk about cargo pants and leave the Brits wondering just what cargo he’s referring to. Other no-no’s include snow pants (Brrrr!, work pants (And exactly what kind of work do you do, Mr. Hawthorne?), and vintage pants (Thanks, old chap, but I prefer underwear that hasn’t been passed down through the generations).

Down in Mexico, we find that the famous “Got Milk?” slogan for the American Dairy Association (ADA) translates into “Are You Lactating?” Although the ADA was less than pleased, it did explain why they were getting so many congratulatory e-mails from the La Leche League. And in Spain, the Coors beer slogan “Turn It Loose,” made people stop and wonder why a great beer company would be asking them to “Suffer from Diarrhea.” Perhaps it had something to do with the morning-after effects of over-consumption.

Wending our way to the southern climes, we hear about the cosmetics company that touted the beautiful camellia scent of its new perfume, only to find that in Latin America, the camellia is the traditional flower for funerals. Nothing like encouraging warm feelings with the intoxicating aroma of mortality.

And let’s not forget nonverbal communication. In the Middle East, some diners emit a loud burp to compliment the cook for a fine meal. In America, any such gastro- intestinal outburst would be con- sidered the height of bad manners (unless you’re 85 or older, in which case you get a free pass).

So advertisers, beware. Before you peddle your wares to the far-flung corners of the world, heed the case of the world-famous brand, Coca-Cola. One morning, its executives awoke to discover that the thousands of signs they had printed telling the Chinese people to “Drink Ke-Ke- Ken-La” were in fact urging them to “bite the wax tadpole.” Ouch. 

John Cadley is an advertising copy-writer in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at