Advertising and (Mis)Communication

Ursus_maritimus_Polar_bear_with_cub.jpg, with ...
Image via Wikipedia

My mother has spent a major part of her life confronting, adjusting to, and negotiating cross cultural interactions and she has done it well.  Awhile ago we were talking about advertisements and messages that are misunderstood because of cultural nuance not easily translated.  She relayed a story of an advertisement on Pakistani television many years ago.  The advertisement was for a refrigerator and to demonstrate how cold and effective it was, a polar bear graced each side.  My mom saw this commercial and remembers thinking to herself “Polar bears to sell a refrigerator in Pakistan? How will this ever work?” so she decided to ask.

Speaking with two Pakistani friends, she asked if they had seen the advertisement.  Their response “Oh yes”.  “What do you think it’s selling?”  They looked at each other puzzled and shrugged:  “Oh, it looks like it’s big rats beside a box!  Maybe you’re supposed to buy the box to keep the rats out!”

Other advertisements have come to my attention through the years, all with the goal to sell by  communicating what a product can do for you or to you with varying degrees of miscommunication due to translation errors and limited understanding of the cultural context of the viewer.

“Coke Adds Life” translated in Chinese to “Coke will bring your ancestors back from the dead!”

Got Milk?” translated in Spanish to “Are you lactating?”

And my favorite – a baby food company was puzzled by the inability to sell baby foods they were exporting to countries in Africa. Convinced that the product would sell well, they had used the label developed in the west displaying a chubby, happy little baby. The company was horrified to find out that due to low literacy many companies put an exact picture of what was inside the container on the outside so people could easily identify the product.

I love these stories both for the humor and the larger message behind the miscommunication.  I often wonder if the words that I choose to express ideas or beliefs that I really care about can be understood clearly, or,  just as these ads miss the mark and are not effective, is my message ineffective as well?  Do I need to change my word pictures to better communicate? Are people seeing rats beside a box or a refrigerator cold enough to satisfy a polar bear?