Lost in translation: can your video fly overseas?

Do you remember the man from the song “Down Under” who just smiled and gave someone a Vegemite sandwich? No? Great. Now we really feel old. Terrific way to start a Monday.

Back when the song came out, everyone loved it, and everyone was secretly afraid to ask “What the ^&%$ is Vegemite?” because they didn’t want to appear less than cool. This took some digging to figure out, because it was back in the days before (horrors!) the internet. We eventually found out it was some kind of paste you spread on toast or bread, and when exchange students did a semester or two in London during college, they brought it or its equally disgusting cousin Marmite back for the rest of us to try.

If you get the chance to try it yourself, just run. It’s like someone found a way to package salty asphalt and somehow convinced people they needed to ingest it.

As horrible as reality turned out to be, there was still something intriguing in learning a little trivia about another culture through that song. People are naturally curious creatures, and one of the best ways to pique interest is to give them something to wonder about. Note that there is a fine but firm line between making them wonder and confusing them beyond repair, which is a line you don’t want to cross. So when you’re making a video that could be seen by potential clients overseas, it pays to know what will and won’t fly. Here are five areas you might want to consider when working with your production company to craft your video.

No way! They didn't just show that!

No way! They didn’t just show that!

1) Permissiveness: This is a freebee if you’re producing a video in the U.S., because standards are more relaxed in many other countries. So if you stick to what will pass muster in the U.S. you’ll probably be safe, but you might run the risk of seeming stodgy in more permissive countries. It’s true, in some areas you definitely want to remain on the conservative side. These include parts of the Middle East, Africa, China and India. But you might be surprised by how much you can get away with in other countries. In parts of Europe, there are fewer restrictions on nudity both in the media and sometimes in public than in the U.S. If you’re of a mind to tailor different versions of your video to different global regions, spend a little time doing research to see what you can—and more importantly, can’t— get away with.

2) Language: One of the areas where you really need to pay attention. If you’re having your video translated into a different language, you have to ensure the voiceover artists are proficient in that language. Work closely with a reputable voiceover company that has extensive experience in the country you’re targeting. It can save you a lot of embarrassment. For example, let’s say you want to introduce your line of artisanal pickles to Japan. So you hire someone to write out a phonetic translation of your commercial. One of the Japanese words for pickles is tsukemono. But somewhere between a sloppy transliteration and your voiceover artist’s imprecise pronunciation, the word comes out sukimono. Sounds very similar to people who don’t speak Japanese, so you send the video on its way to Japan. Congratulations. For the next three months, you’ll be spending 30 seconds of air time every evening extolling your new line of sex addicts to a bewildered audience. You will certainly get a wave of interest at first, quite of a lot of it from Japanese authorities and possibly the FBI. Then you’ll have to deal with disgruntled Japanese customers who are somewhat disappointed when they open that delivery box. But cheer up. Even the heavy hitters make mistakes. Pepsi once introduced an ad campaign to China claiming the soft drink “brings you back to life.” Unfortunately, the translation was “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Yeah, nothing like a refreshing zombie attack to take your mind off the summer heat.

3) Image is everything: So make sure you get some input from people in your target country. Some notable examples of what can go wrong when you don’t do this: Pampers had a marketing flop in Japan when their branding included a stork. In the West people associate the stork with bringing babies, but there are no such connotations in Japan, so it just confused people. Not, however, as horrifying as the marketing meltdown that happened when Gerber brought its baby food to Africa. You know that adorable baby on the Gerber label? Did you also know that in some African countries, the picture on the label is supposed to show what’s actually inside the jar? Yeesh.  And while we’re on the theme of shocking people, Nike had to pull a line of sneakers from Middle Eastern countries because a logo on the back that was meant to represent fire actually looked strikingly similar to the Arabic text for Allah. Unless you’re marketing plain white sheets of paper, make sure someone familiar with the country where you’re releasing the video looks over the campaign, the product design, and everything else with a fine-tooth comb. (By the way, white is associated with death and misfortune in some parts of Asia, so even plain paper may need a video makeover.) This is ideally done during the storyboarding phase so you don’t waste too much time and money on a marketing angle that you’ll have to redo.

4) Who is your spokesperson? If you’re planning to cast a celebrity spokesperson, remember that their reputation precedes them when the campaign goes overseas. Make sure you know how your spokesperson is perceived in your target country/countries. A model known for revealing shoots will not go over well in conservative areas like parts of India and the Middle East. An actor with a known history of drug problems will not be credible in some countries, no matter how long he’s been sober. Even politics comes into play. One of the more famous backlashes happened when Fiat ran a campaign in Italy featuring Richard Gere driving one of its cars to Tibet. This did not go over well when consumers in China found out about it, even though the ad wasn’t running in that country, because Gere’s pro-independence leanings on the Tibet issue are controversial, to say the least. Proof that in the age of social media, when every blunder can become a meme within seconds, you can’t count on containing a firestorm.  Even if you aren’t going for celebrity status, be careful who appears in your ad. Motorola had trouble when it ran ads in China that featured models with Mohawk hairdos. This just wasn’t a look the average consumer could relate to. There must be some sense of connection between the person in the ad and the person watching the ad, or else the viewer will lose interest.

5) Timing is crucial: Stay abreast of developments in your target country to ensure your ad, which might be fine other times, doesn’t hit a sore spot because of recent developments. One example from right here in the U.S. was an ad by Spirit airlines, showing a glistening model lying blissfully by the ocean, with the text “Check out the oil on our beaches: Ft. Lauderdale.” Unfortunately, it was put out right around the time the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred. People were not amused. They were even more horrified when Malaysia Airlines decided to run a “What’s on your bucket list?” campaign in Australia and New Zealand, right at the time that the carrier was in the headlines for one jet that went missing, and another that was shot down over Ukraine. Everyone on both flights is presumed dead, so the “bucket list” reference—not such a good idea.

A little foresight can save you a lot of headaches when you’re planning a video campaign in more than one country. At Hencar, we do the deep research needed to ensure that gaffes like those mentioned above don’t leave you lost in translation with your intended audience.