Freaky Friday: 3 of the Scariest Translations in Celebration of Halloween

Freaky Friday: 3 of the Scariest Translations in Celebration of Halloween
Table of contents
Dimitris Glezos
October 30, 2015
5 min read

Embarrassing mistakes aren’t really a big deal when you make them in front of your friends, but make an embarrassing mistake in a global marketing campaign and you can bet everyone will be talking about it. In celebration of Halloween, Transifex wanted to share some embarrassing, and quite frankly, scary translations that were made by companies we all know and love.

1. Kentucky Fried Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken is one of the few American fast food companies to succeed in China. KFC understood that the Chinese often viewed American fast-food chains as cheap establishments, serving mediocre western-style foods, and instead positioned themselves as part of the local community by serving items besides fried chicken. The Chinese KFC menu contains 50 items, in contrast with the 29 items commonly found on American menus, and includes traditional dishes beloved by the Chinese like egg tarts and congee (rice porridge) with pork.

KFCs in China also have larger kitchens to accommodate the larger menus, and the actual restaurant is typically larger than those in the US. Why? To allow customers space to linger. Unlike America where families grab a bucket of fried chicken to share around the table at home, KFC wanted to welcome extended families and groups to dine inside their establishment.

While KFC had been so thoughtful in how to localize their product and dining experience to suit the Chinese, it lacked the same thoughtfulness when translating one of their most popular catchphrases. According to reports, the popular saying “Finger-lickin’ good” was translated into Chinese, reading literally as, “Eat your fingers off.” Appetizing, right?

2. Pepsi

In the late 1950s, a demographic phenomenon known as the post-war baby boom would change the way Americans thought about daily activities and purchases. Knowing these individuals were part of a new generation that embraced a lifestyle with fewer rules, Pepsi crafted a campaign that captured this new, fun loving spirit. As more Americans identified with Pepsi’s campaign, the first Pepsi Generation was born.

Pepsi’s campaign was seen as innovative in the marketing world because it portrayed Americans in a new light. The campaign’s main message was simple – live life to the fullest. There is no set structure or ideology to live by. The popularity of the campaign helped Pepsi steadily gain market share over Coca Cola – a percentage that would continue to grow as they launched the Pepsi Challenge campaign in the 1980s.

That said, when it was time to expand into new global markets, it seemed like a no-brainer to bring the successful Pepsi Generation campaign to Taiwan. The fun loving nature of the campaign would be exciting and would represent the brand in a positive light. Unfortunately, the Pepsi slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into Taiwanese became, “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” A bit creepy in general, but for us, a perfect scary Halloween story!

3. Jolly Green Giant

Most Americans recognize the Jolly Green Giant as a friendly, approachable fellow who will happily share his frozen and canned vegetables to hungry consumers. Yet, this isn’t always how the Green Giant was portrayed. Prior to adopting the name Green Giant Co., the company was known as the Minnesota Canning Co., and its mascot wasn’t jolly or even green. In fact, he looked more like a caveman, wearing a bearskin and carrying a large pea pod.

The Minnesota Canning Co.’s mascot made his first television debut in 1928, and to much surprise, wasn’t warmly accepted by consumers. Over the next few years, the famous Leo Burnett would step in and create the trademarked Jolly Green Giant we’re all familiar with. Burnett would make the Giant completely green, add a tunic made of leaves, and give the Giant a smile and friendly demeanor, which became a huge success in the United States.

After finding success in the United States, Green Giant Co. wanted to expand its offerings to other countries and identified canned sweet corn as the first product to test overseas because it wouldn’t require flavor changes across international markets. Jolly Green Giant quickly learned this wasn’t the case, as local influences played a much larger role than anticipated, and they also ran into a translation error in Middle Eastern countries. The “Jolly Green Giant” became the “intimidating green ogre” in Arabic, reversing the work that Burnett had accomplished in America in a few poorly translated words. At the very least, the ogre might scare Arabic-speaking children into eating their vegetables!

Scared Silly?

All of the above translation tales are just that, tales. None have been confirmed by any company reps and there’s no historical financial data showing a decrease in sales during the time of these poorly translated campaigns. But like all Halloween tales, they’ll leave you cautious, whether you believe in them or not.

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Dimitris Glezos
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