Motion Sickness

A German commercial for a line of jellies which is thought to be highly entertaining in the homeland is dubbed into English and comes to America. It is not only unfunny, it’s downright smarmy.

A British toothpaste ad featuring Lilliputian characters cleaning giant teeth is brought stateside and promptly bombs.

An Italian dairy company tries to promote a product that is unknown to Americans without regard for the fact that no one has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

A Korean tire manufacturer brings ads over with the Korean dialogue dubbed over. Sorry.

Even the famous “Got milk?” line, translated for Mexico, comes out reading, “Are you lactating?”

Truly effective TV commercials often borrow on the cultural idiosyncrasies of their home countries and become very personal to their place of origin. Coca-Cola once tried to export its highly successful “Mean Joe Green” spot, producing versions with local sports heroes. It soon gave up, realizing that not all emotional moments are universal.

TV spots don’t travel well.

So why do smart European advertisers keep sending us these atrocities? Do they think they’re saving money? Is it a control thing? Are they concerned that their message will be bruised in the hands of clumsy American creatives? Or are we to blame?

Are global agencies, in trying to suck every last euro out of a client’s pocket, suggesting that one worldwide campaign (executed by them, of course) is wiser than advertising tailored to the consumer it’s intended to reach? Does “Speak with one voice” now mean “Make one commercial for the world”? Let’s hope not.

Having been a judge at Cannes, I have seen firsthand how different cultures react differently to advertising. A commercial that is considered close to high art in Japan is mocked by a British judge for not being funny. And as everyone knows, if it isn’t funny to a Cannes jury, forget about that Lion.

On the print side, we open Vogue and find that many big advertisers are using worldwide images of nothing more than supermodels and a logo. That might actually work for a Gucci or Armani or Chanel. As long as they convey an image, they don’t need an idea. The brand is the image. The image is the brand.

In the real world, there are folks who need to impart information. I’m thinking about the car people. I admit that right now there aren’t many car ads that say anything. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that Japanese car companies are smart enough to hire American agencies to communicate with American consumers. (If you study Japanese car advertising, you can see why.)

While brand strategies can often be exported, execution cannot.

I’m for returning to a time when foreign advertisers believed in American creativity enough to let us interpret their message. Although it may require a leap of faith in some cases, it’s well worth it.

Finally, when Pepsi translated “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” into Chinese, it read, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Now that’s a claim any advertiser could get behind.