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10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

You know the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

Image credit: NBC



Well, as we all know, it’s not true.

It’s not true when someone says something cruel, and it’s not true when it comes to marketing and your copy is out on display for the world to see…and pick apart.

Say something wrong, in poor taste, that’s offensive, or just plain stupid, and your brand will get torn apart. Shockingly, slip-ups happen even from the world’s leading brands and often centre around racist, sexist, or hurtful themes, which just isn’t cool.

Here at Phrasee, where we think about marketing language pretty much all the time, our antennae become activated any time a marketing language slip-up goes public, and we make a mental note for ourselves each time, lest we walk down the same dark path.

Here are a few of our all-time faves…

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

Remember that time…

Dr. Pepper told women they couldn’t drink their soda?

In a commercial that immediately offends and alienates half the world’s population right from the beginning, you’d think it’d be hard to dig a deeper hole. This Dr. Pepper campaign, however, managed to do just that, ending with the main character saying “Dr. Pepper Ten – It’s not for women”, as the phrase is splashed across the screen reiterating that women aren’t supposed to drink the soda.

First of all, the commercial is just pretty stupid and has a dumb script (also calling out women liking ‘lady drinks’) but you have to wonder, what in the world was Dr. Pepper trying to do making the macho guy look like an idiot and telling women not to drink the diet soda — who did they actually want to buy it?? Also, we have heard through the grapevine that this so called “doctor” may never have gone to medical school at all.


Malaysia Airlines asked for people’s bucket lists… after two high-profile crashes?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

In 2014 Malaysia Airlines suffered not one, but two tragic lost aircraft. In a competition, to win iPads or economy class flight tickets, that was open to people in New Zealand and Australia, the airline asked participants to answer “What and where would you like to tick off on your bucket list, and explain why?”

A “bucket list”, as you would assume their marketing team would be aware of, refers to a dream to-do list of activities before one “kicks the bucket”(dies). So, essentially the airline was asking participants where they would like to go (presumably on Malaysia Airlines) before they died soon after many people had actually lost their lives flying with the airline. Not good timing.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi messed up in China?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

When first marketed in China, the name Coca-Cola was translated as “Bite the Wax Tadpole.”

Selling cola in China must be really difficult because Pepsi also had translation issues when expanding into the country. At the time the company was using the slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” which was translated in China as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” While the translation actually is quite literal, the intended meaning couldn’t be more different and offers an important lesson in semantics.

Victoria’s Secret showed the world what the perfect body looked like?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

Shocker alert! According to Victoria’s Secret, the “perfect body” was tall and thin!

In a UK campaign to promote the brand’s “Body” line of lingerie, marketing materials online and in stores used the slogan “The Perfect ‘Body’” shown across an image of Victoria’s Secret Angels. Not surprisingly, critics thought the campaign was offensive and more than 26,000 people agreed, signing a petition for the company to stop the campaign and apologise.    

Bud Light encouraged drinkers to make bad decisions?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

In 2015, Bud Light made the mistake of putting the phrase “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night” on bottles as part of their #upforwhatever campaign.

The message on the bottle was immediately criticised on Reddit and social media for not only encouraging consumers to have an ‘anything goes’ attitude and potentially make poor choices after drinking a beer, but condoning a pervasive rape culture considering how alcohol often plays a significant role in rape cases.

IHOP revealed they’re more of a boob than butt company?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

Those who enjoy a dose of misogyny with their morning pancakes can make sure to head to IHOP.

The ubiquitous US breakfast chain once had a community manager attempt a joke on Twitter comparing the size of women’s breasts to their pancakes. Aside from not even paying enough attention to make the tweet look like a complete thought, it’s never the best idea for a company to make a joke at women’s expense. Body shaming is so passé.

Sephora… misspoke?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

In another example of the importance of proofreading your company’s social media messages, beauty products megabrand Sephora hashtagged a tweet about an upcoming store opening missing one key letter. Instead of #CountdownToBeauty they put… well, we’re sure you can figure it out. Way to go, Sephora.

Huggies dissed dads?

10 times marketing language got it totally wrong

Stereotypes abound in marketing and advertising, but you would think that in the 21st-century marketing language would try to offer a more modern approach to their target markets.

Apparently not so for nappy brand Huggies who, in 2014, missed the mark when trying to sell to dads. In the campaign “Have Dads Put Huggies to the Test” the dads were portrayed as overwhelmed and careless with babies who needed to have their full nappies changed. Naturally, their incompetence was okay as long as they used the Huggies brand.

Needless to say, fathers found the campaign offensive and Huggies removed the ad after a petition called “We’re Dads, Huggies. Not Dummies” was launched.

Time Warner agreed their service sucked

In a commercial from cable company Time Warner, the brand managed to criticise their own service, women, and show a dysfunctional relationship all at once. Starting with highlighting the fact that their cable service wasn’t consistent and could take a long time to fix it.

Sadly, they add, guys don’t have any excuses anymore to get out of spending time with their girlfriends and “Friday romantic comedy nights” because they’ll fix any outages in 24 hours. The fact that they felt the need to make a commercial promoting a new commitment to providing basic service is odd whilst also apologising for not working faster and forcing couples to spend time together watching television. This whole campaign was just a bit odd.

No American companies could make their slogans sound good in Spanish?

Things can get really tricky when converting English marketing language into another culture’s marketing language.

Coors, for example, once tried to translate its slogan “Turn It Loose” into Spanish where it came out as a colloquial term for having diarrhoea. Not exactly what you want your beer associated with.

The American Dairy Association’s long-running “Got Milk?” campaign also ran in Spanish-speaking countries where the catchy “Got Milk?” was translated into “Are You Lactating?”

Last but not least, the chicken farm and company Frank Perdue (now known as Perdue Farms) became a multi-billion-dollar international company selling to more than 100 different countries under the slogan “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken”. Unfortunately, the sentiment got lost in translation and came out as “It takes a sexually stimulated man to make a chicken affectionate.” Wow.

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