Coke cancels campaign that shocked and offended consumers

Business man with hands to his face with shocked expression

Some Canadians just can’t take a joke.

Consumers’ shock and outrage over words and phrases in what was supposed to be a humorous promotional campaign caused Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada to cancel it, the Vancouver Sun reported September 20.

‘You retard’? ‘Douche’?

The promotion involved printing two words – one in each of Canada’s two official languages, French and English – inside Coca-Cola products’ bottle caps.

Shannon Denny, director of brand communications with Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada, said consumers were supposed to collect the caps to combine words into humorous sentences.

Anglophones would use the English words and Francophones would use the French ones, she explained.

So far, so good.

But the people compiling the French word list never compared notes with the people compiling the English world list, and vice versa.

And nobody stopped to think that some French words that are spelled just like English words maybe, just maybe, might have different meanings.

Like “retard.”

In French, it simply means “delay.”

But Blake Loates, of Edmonton, speaks English, and her 11-year-old sister has cerebral palsy and autism. When “she and her husband were eating at a restaurant in Edmonton earlier this week [and] her husband read [You Retard inside] the cap off his bottle of Vitaminwater,”

“Both my husband and I were pretty shocked. We couldn’t actually believe what we were seeing,” Loates said. “We thought maybe it was a joke or that maybe a rogue employee got a hold of the lid machine and wrote it.”

Loates said she found it particularly offensive because she has a younger sister who is developmentally delayed.

Loates said her dad is having difficulty accepting it.

“That word is forbidden from my parents’ home,” Loates said. “It’s equivalent to the ‘N’ word.”

Another French word inside the bottle caps that drew angry consumer correspondence was the French word for “shower” – “douche.”

Denny said the problem was the word lists for each language were approved separately…”Some words that were on the list…have a completely innocuous meaning in French and are used regularly within French conversations,” Denny said.

“But when you look at that word from an English standpoint, it takes on a much different, offensive meaning. And that was an oversight on our part during that review process.”

The “oversight” was a costly one. Coca-Cola’s canceling the promotion, destroying who knows how many million bottle caps with words printed inside, and scrambling around trying to figure out what to do about the millions more that are out there in the marketplace.

And it wasn’t Coke’s first costly packaging oversight, either.

History repeats itself

In December, 2011, the bottler changed the color scheme on all its Coke cans from red to white in connection with a “green” polar bear promotion. As we reported at the time,

Consumers posted comments on the company’s official blog, telling them that their business was soda, not climate change. Others made angry phone calls. Tweets have called the white cans “blasphemy.” Others have warned that mixing up Coke and Diet Coke “is a SHOCK to the palate!”

An Atlanta deli owner reported customers returning opened white cans after realizing they weren’t drinking Diet Coke. (He had to eat the cost of the Diet Cokes he exchanged them for.)

Diabetic customers complained that the white cans looked too much like the silver Diet Coke cans, causing them to drink the sugar-packed version by mistake.

Consumers have posted YouTube videos complaining about the white cans. One features a blindfolded taste test; after sipping from a red can and a white can, a blindfolded woman pronounces the white-can Coke “the funky one!” (even though the Coke inside both was the same).

So Coca-Cola had to go back to their old, red packaging and trash between 350 million and 1.4 billion white cans – most filled with soda.

Avoid expensive lessons

In 1972, when Humble Oil changed their gasoline brands’ names from Esso, Enco and Humble to Exxon, it was only after extensive research to find a word that meant nothing in any language. In the course of this research, they discarded Exon, because that was the governor of Nebraska’s surname, and Enco, because in Japanese that means “stalled car.”

Other advertisers weren’t so thorough.

When a South American airline’s English-speaking American advertising Agency produced radio commercials about flying to South America on leather seats, the mistranslated Spanish-language scripts invited travelers to fly to South America naked.

When Chevrolet sold its Nova model in South and Central America, they never checked to see what, if anything, the name meant in Spanish and Portuguese. Turns out that “No va” means “doesn’t go” – kind of a Spanish equivalent of Enco.

And when Pepsico introduced Pepsi-Cola to mainland China, they never realized that their US slogan – “Come Alive – Join the Pepsi Generation” – translated into Mandarin as “Bring back the spirits of our ancestors.”

So, particularly when you’re advertising in a second language, do your homework. At the very least, have at least two sets of eyes, belonging to people who speak both different languages, check the copy. Better yet, have one person translate your words from English into the second language and another translate that translation back into English again.

Yes, it costs extra money. But far less than scrapping 1.4 billion cans of soda.

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