The Vizzini Effect

Posted November 12, 2014, under Ad Absurdum

For anyone who needs a reminder, “Vizzini” was the guy in The Princess Bride (1987) whose “inconceivable” verbal tic lead to this classic (and now well-worn) rejoinder.

Well, Vizzini is not alone when it comes to advertising in non-native languages. Translation is an art, and a bad translator or poor market research can lead to some serious miscommunications. It’s a problem that has even plagued corporate giants who should really have known better.

Chow Down

KFC thought they could bring their signature country-fried chicken to Asia with little to no change in their marketing. In many ways, they weren’t wrong. For example, one of their brand colors is red, the color of joy and prosperity in China, which is excellent positioning.

Where they went afoul was in the translation of their famous “Finger-Lickin’ Good” slogan. Maybe the translator was a George Romero fan, because the first KFC campaign in China encouraged patrons to “Eat your fingers off.”

Oh, Crap

Several companies have stepped in the same translation issue in Germany. Let’s use Clariol as an example. They were baffled by the poor showing of their “Mist Stick” curling iron. But it all became obvious when they found out what “mist” means in German. We’ll give you a clue:

Turns out German women weren’t eager to buy a “Manure Stick” for some reason. But Clariol had other products to sell, so they couldn’t have had it as bad as the Irish Mist Liqueur Company.

Sweet Ride

We suppose it might be too much to ask of a Japanese automotive corporation to know Spanish slang. But when your advertising materials say, “Laputa is designed to deliver maximum utility in a minimum space while providing a smooth, comfortable ride,” and specifically mention its “lightweight, impact-absorbing body”… someone had to have been in on the joke.

Mazda did get around to changing the name, presumably after all the Latin American dealerships complained about the influx of misled customers looking for “The Whore.”

Bad Touch

Back in the ’90s, people were still getting used to the whole concept of mouses and windows. The visionaries at Mitsubishi and Panasonic realized that touchscreen technology was the One True Way — years before the iPhone or iPad, or even the iPod were more than a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. They developed a cutting-edge home computer with a touchscreen, then handed it over to the marketing folks.

That’s when things took a turn for the hilarious.

Woody Woodpecker (pictured at right) was huge in 1990s Japan. So the Panasonic marketing folks secured licensing rights to use the character as the spokescritter for the new product. Sure, okay. That’s not so strange.

We think everyone can agree: Still way better than Clippy.

But then they took it further, we guess because the licensing fees ate up the budget and they couldn’t afford to have more ideas. They named the computer “Woody.” The actual tactile interface? “Touch Woody.” Everyone who has ever been a 12-year-old boy is losing it right about now — but wait, there’s more: Their campaign slogan? “Touch Woody — The Internet Pecker.”

They were saved from true infamy at the eleventh hour by the insistence of an American employee. This so completely discouraged the crew of prophetic engineers that now we’ll never know what the world would look like under their guidance.


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