Linguistic Slips - Cross-Cultural Marketing Fails

Phoque. Relax, I didn’t say a bad word; that’s just ‘seal’ in French. I’m not phoque-ing with you. Phoque means, well, phoque, a ‘seal’ in French. You can see how if any native (or non-native English speaker that is a Samuel L. Jackson fan) could misconstrue the use of the word ‘seal’ in French. If your linguistic faux pas are part of a marketing campaign, then your phoque-ups are a bit more public. Here are a few examples of cross-cultural marketing fails.

See also: Avoid These 20 English Words When in Other Countries


This was the 70s; everyone was wearing synthetic fabrics, dancing under disco balls, and wearing platform shoes (I don’t know what they were doing; I was born a decade later). As the personal computers were launching a rising star, a company with girth, a firm addition to the electronics game, Wang, wanted to market their up-and-coming products in the U.K. They thought the slogan ‘Wang Cares’ would be perfect. The company’s U.K. marketers thought it would be perfect for a laugh since it sounded like ‘wanker’, which means masturbator in English dialect.

Bundh Sauce

Sharwoods, a U.K.-based food manufacturer, spent £6 million on a campaign for their new sauces, Bundh. After fanfare and excitement, the sauces were a breakaway hit! Nope, at the very beginning of the campaign, the company was contacted by Punjabi speakers informing them that they were basically marketing “Butt Sauce”. Because bundh in Punjab language means ‘butt’. Butt Sauce!

Ah, OK!

You know that symbol that little kids make to show that everything’s OK? You basically make a circle with your thumb and index finger, and point your other fingers in the air. In Latin America, this mean you’re a sphincter, or a**hole in non-medical terminology. An unnamed company printed the “OK” gesture on every page of their catalogue with the page number. So each page was ‘one a**hole’, ‘two a**holes’, ‘three a**holes’ and so on and so forth a**holes.

50 shades of medical containers

An American company that marketed medical containers wanted to take their relationship to the next level. The instructions read: “Take top off, push in bottom”. Oh, baby, I love it when you talk dirty! Especially about medical containers.

The Holy Blunder

Heineken thought it would be fun to print every country’s flag that was in the 1994 World Cup. Including Saudi Arabia’s. Including the holy text from the Quran. Which resulted in many angry people since the Islamic faith does not allow alcohol consumption. I guess the Christian equivalent would be if an image of Christ was printed on the bottle cap of ‘Satan Cider’. 

Orange is not the new black in Ireland

If you don’t know about the conflict in Ireland, go pick up a book; what do I look like – a history professor? But, in basics, Catholics and Protestants had been engaged in a bloody multiyear conflict with casualties and deaths on both sides. The Protestant faction of the conflict has always been associated with the color orange; you’ll see why that’s relevant in a second. When telecommunications giant Orange ran a slogan saying ‘The future is bright… the future is Orange.” The Catholic-Irish took deep offense to this slogan due to its association with conflict, casualties and death.

Do you know of any other regrettable cross-culturally offensive marketing faux pas? Let me know in the comment section below!