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Sometimes English is not sexy but stupid

Sometimes English is not sexy but stupidAs we have written about in our post Six reasons not to translate your web site, in some industries, English is the lingua franca of international communication.

And it's not just industries that benefit from (are threatened by?) the use of English. In my native Switzerland, for example, English is increasingly taking the place of French/German/Italian among non-native speakers. That is, most German speakers would rather speak English than French in Genève, and French Swiss would rather speak English than German in Zürich.

It is no surprise then to see companies use English in all kinds of advertisements. The problem is, many non-native English speakers in Europe and elsewhere are struggling to make sense of these English ads.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported some astonishing statistics [German article; Google's English translation] a few years ago: 85% of surveyed consumers in Germany couldn't make sense of Siemens Mobile's tag line "Be inspired". A whopping 92% failed to understand (let alone be persuaded by) RWE's slogan "One Group. Multi Utilities". Even relatively well understood tag lines like "Every time a good time" (McDonald's) and "There's no better way to fly" (Lufthansa) could only be understood by around half of the surveyed consumers.

A couple of months ago, Der Spiegel ran a follow-up piece on the subject [German article; Google's English translation]. The situation hasn't improved much in Germany (and probably not elsewhere either).

The magazine reported that of more than 1,000 surveyed consumers, only about 25% can make sense of English slogans and tag lines. A common interpretation of Philips' tag line "sense and simplicity", for instance, is "simple like a scythe".

According to Philips,

"sense and simplicity" encapsulates our commitment to intimately understand the needs and aspirations of consumers and customers in order to deliver innovative solutions that are advanced and easy to experience.
Hmmm, you might want to rethink that one...

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  1. Paulina said...
    That's so much true! We tend to overestimate the knowledge of English in Europe.
    On the other hand, sometimes it's enough for a slogan to be "sexy". Who cares about what it means, if commercials is one big lie anyway ;)
    Joe Ray said...
    I agree with the comment made by FET about Phillips (that they may want to rethink that one..).

    Sure, their tag is how they're positioned but in non-English markets it serves as little more than an inter-office memo. Here's a good way to think of this- we're having a face to face conversation, you tell me your message in English (I don't speak it very well), I ask you what it means, you tell me as clear and as true to yourself as you can. Translate that scenario over to how Phillips keeps it in English...if I speak English, I get it. If I don't, then I don't get it- sort of the logistical thing mentioned in translating in China. It comes back to knowing the brand essence and what does it mean to the audience(s). Why should they care? Make the message relevant to the audience rather than just the internal head nodders and propaganda ministers.
    Eru Dani said...
    I couldn't agree more. The same is happening in Argentina. I don't know if there's a survey on the subject, but I can see that more than 50% of national advertisements are in english. Somehow companies believe that this is "cool", and I can tell less than 30% of the people get the message..
    Ana said...
    Perhaps many times getting a message through to people is not the goal, but letting them know that you are "cool", as Eru Dani points out. If you are a cool company, lots of stupid people will buy your products.
    Donna said...
    In addition, the English isn't always well-written, and then it really becomes stupid rather than sexy. Two examples spotted in Geneva within the past year or two:
    a hair salon sporting a poster of a model with the slogan 'shampoo in my head'
    ads for a new skating rink inviting the public to 'Come on Ice'

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