A Stupid Idea for Coke From the Get-Go

A few years back I won a free Palm Handspring PDA from a Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) bottle cap promotion, proving the benefits from such marketing campaigns can run in both directions. Can makers like Crown Holdings are hoping new laser technologies will allow such promotions to extend to soda and beer cans, too, allowing for microimprinting codes and designs on the pull tabs.

But such marketing attempts can go awry sometimes, particularly when they're exported to other countries. One well-known example is the dismal failure General Motors experienced with its Chevy Nova in Mexico, because "no va" means "don't go" in Spanish. Perdue chicken had a similar problem south of the border when its tag line "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" was translated as "It takes a hard man to make a chicken aroused." And arguably Yum! Brandsproblems with its KFC chain in China began when its "finger lickin' good" motto was translated as "eat your fingers off."

Well, Coke is experiencing a similar marketing fail in Canada, where a girl with a developmentally disabled sister popped a Vitaminwater cap and found the seemingly offensive phrase "You Retard" underneath. It was part of the soda maker's campaign to pair one English word with one French word and the result was enough for someone to take offense. Of course, even in English "retard" can have several meanings beyond just the pejorative -- it also means to slow, prevent, or hinder -- and in French it means late or delayed. Despite the rationale behind the promotion, Coke apologized, canceled the campaign, and said it wouldn't be producing any more such caps.

Too often companies are just tone deaf, cursed by trying out every idea that's put up on the whiteboard during a brainstorming session, such as when Disney thought it would be cool to trademark the centuries-old Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos for a movie that it's developing about the holiday with Pixar.

Companies can't plan for every contingency, and in today's hypersensitive "everyone's a victim" society it's quite possible you're going to offend someone no matter what you do. But while Coke's response to cancel the whole marketing campaign in response to this incident seems extreme, moving onto something else where there's less probability of a bonehead move is probably a better use of its ad budget anyway.

An international incident
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