Remember: Words MEAN things


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Welcome to 2012!

Hope you all had a great holiday! Job woes aside, I spent my time with family, which always makes me happy. Plus…I got a Jaromir Jagr shirt and a Jimmy Rollins jersey…hello…best gifts ever!

While shopping for the holidays I came across this…

And of course it got me to thinking about this design and advertising business of ours…funny how when you love what you do, you always think about work…even away from work (or out of work)…

The picture above is a fragrance strip from Bath & Body Works. The idea is, instead of covering yourself in 100 different scents while testing them out, you spritz it on these paper strips for comparing. No fuss, no muss.

However, someone up the chain at Bath & Body Works didn’t do their homework. Sure, we can look at it in context, in the store, and realize (eventually), that “I Heart BBW” means “I love Bath & Body Works”. However, in common parlance, the term “BBW” means something entirely different. And has for many years.

“Big Beautiful Woman” (commonly abbreviated as BBW) is a term most frequently used in the context of, affirmation of or sexual attraction to overweight or obese women. The terms “Big Beautiful Women” and “BBW” were coined by Carole Shaw in 1979, when she launched BBW Magazine, a fashion and lifestyle magazine for “plus-size” women.
from Wikipedia

Seriously. Most people will think “Big Beautiful Woman” long before “Bath & Body Works” when they see BBW. It’s been around since 1979! Go ahead. Google it. But PLEASE make sure your safe search is on first.

So of course, when I picked up the fragrance strip, I naturally thought it was referring to full-figured ladies. Not quite what Bath & Body Works intended I am sure.

The fact is, we, as designers, are the last line of defense for the companies we work for. The very nature of our jobs requires that we stay abreast of current trends and events, thereby allowing ourselves to make our designs work best in the world we live in. So long before these strips went to print, the designer should have piped up and said, “Ummm excuse me folks…”

Stories abound about advertising and marketing campaigns that have failed due to missteps, faux pas and not checking the current trends in the markets we place our product in.

Sometimes, the problem cannot be foreseen, as was the case with the Ayds Diet Plan from the late 1970’s – early 1980s. Ayds was a chocolate product that suppressed the appetite, and enjoyed strong sales in the US and UK during that period. The product was felled by the arrival of the disease we now know as AIDS or HIV (which previous to then was known as “GRID” for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Almost overnight, the commercials seemed like cruel parody.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the urban myth about the Chevy Nova having lackluster sales in Spanish speaking countries due to the fact that “no va” in Spanish literally means “doesn’t go”, but this story, true or not, along with others help to illustrate the pitfalls of not doing research first.

  1. Pepsi’s slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” translated in Taiwan to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”
  2. The Coca Cola company used Chinese characters to spell out the sounds Co Ca Co La. The characters in Chinese translated to “Bite the wax tadpole.”
  3. Perdue’s chicken slogan, “it takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” appeared on billboards across Mexico in Spanish as “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”
  4. Parker Pen’s slogan “it won’t stain your pocket and embarrass you” came out as “it won’t stain your pocket and get you pregnant” in Spanish.
  5. Clairol introduced a curling iron into Germany they named “Mist Stick,” to find that “mist” is slang for manure.
  6. Coors used its slogan, “Turn it loose” in Spain, where it translated into “Suffer from diarrhea.”

I think we all should remember, as elementary as it sounds: words mean things.

While working at Music123, we decided to launch our own musical instrument brands. Two that come to mind (because I had to create the logos) are “Baja” and “Valdesta”. “Baja” was for a line of acoustic and electric guitars, and since it was an actual name of a location, it is quite safe. We wanted a name that evoked ease and a carefree attitude, which, IMHO, “Baja” does quite easily.

One needs to be careful when using place names as well, because of what the name could evoke. Try it for yourself…what comes to mind when you hear “Paris”? Would it work as a brand name for, say, plumbers tape? Or men’s underwear? Probably not. But perfume, gourmet packaged foods or cosmetics? Perfect. Then again, some names will never be good for a product….such as “Chernobyl”.

“Valdesta” is a brand name we came up with at Music123 for a line of pianos and keyboards. We wanted something that sounded old world, classic, something you could imagine maybe was a name belonging to a 19th century piano maker. We came up with dozens of names, and thoroughly researched them all to make sure that they weren’t the names of the infamous, or improper words in foreign languages. Once we had it narrowed down we tested it among likely customers, and “Valdesta” won out.

The moral of this story? Be careful with the words you use in advertising…a little research can be the deciding factor between a creative ad campaign and telling your customers “this smells like a full figured girl”.

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