When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say, “It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” meant embarrass. Instead, the ads said, “It won't leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.” Something was certainly lost in the translation… but could it have been avoided?

Cracking an international market is a goal for most growing corporations, yet the misuse of simple words can sabotage even your best global marketing efforts. Just as one size doesn't fit all in global marketing, one word doesn't fit for all cultures, either. In fact, if used erroneously, it can cripple the most promising of deals.

By and large, it is a country's language and cultural differences—not similarities—to our own that make it a more intriguing and challenging conquest.

Thanks to the Internet, there is a gigantic shift from doing business on a local to a global scale. This trend is irreversible and gaining phenomenal momentum. Now, more than ever, businesspeople need to develop cultural awareness, be accepting of local cultural norms and understand how important cultural sensitivity is for navigating your way through complex business transactions.

Having a healthy global attitude and an ability to look beneath the surface to discern the human strengths and weaknesses of people different from ourselves can only foster more meaningful personal and professional relationships.

Busy international executives have long recognized the embarrassment that can result from committing a faux pas in another country. Increased global business dealings have only intensified the need to know how not to make a cultural mistake. Consider the following experiences:

  1. Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, which was the name of a local porno magazine.

  2. The name Coca-Cola in China was first rendered as Ke-kou-ke-la. Unfortunately, Coke did not discover until after thousands of signs had been printed that the phrase means “bite the wax tadpole,” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 Chinese characters and found a close phonetic equivalent, “ko-kou-ko-le,” which can be loosely translated as “happiness in the mouth.”

  3. Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American ad campaign: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

  4. Hunt-Wesson introduced its Big John products in French Canada as Gros Jos before finding out that the phrase, in slang, means “big breasts.” In this case, however, the name problem did not have a noticeable effect on sales.

  5. In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.

  6. The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem—Feeling Free,” got translated in the Japanese market into “When smoking Salem, you feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”

  7. Ford, many years ago, had a problem in Brazil when the Pinto flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for “tiny male genitals.” Ford pried all the nameplates off and substitute Corcel, which means horse.

  8. An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market to promote the Pope's visit. Instead of the desired “I Saw the Pope” in Spanish, the shirts proclaimed, “I Saw the Potato.”


Where can you go for help? As a start, contact protocol officers at embassies and consulates worldwide and ask them for a tip sheet on what to do and what not to do when conducting business in a specific foreign country. A list of embassies can be found at www.embassy-worldwide.com. Or try the Electronic Embassy at www.embassy.org.

If all else fails, remember to at least keep a sense of humor about your own and others' interpersonal missteps, exercise tolerance, make good-faith efforts to bridge differences and find common ground on the global frontier. And don't forget that in some countries silence can be golden.

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Laurel Delaney (LaurelDelaney.com) is the founder of GlobeTrade.com and the creator of "Borderbuster," an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog. She can be reached at ldelaney@globetrade.com.