Connecting with New Markets and Audiences: Translating and adapting advertising and PSA texts for international audiences

Translating and adapting advertising material for international and foreign language markets is a challenge. A catchy slogan that has worked well in a local or domestic market may or may not be as successful in another environment or may have no linguistic equivalent in a target language. What comes off as funny in one culture may leave people in another part of the world cold or might even offend. Just how far should a company localize an advertising slogan or campaign in an increasingly globalized marketplace? The steady shift of advertising towards wireless media and borderless markets calls for the development of a global approach to advertising and public relations that permits local fine tuning without diluting a core brand identity.

As advertising executives become more sensitive to cultural issues, they tend to employ cross-cultural adaptation strategies for international campaigns rather than standardized, “one-size-fits-all” approaches developed at company headquarters. According to Wikipedia, McDonald’s turned to Heye & Partner, a German member of the DDB Worldwide Communications Group, when they undertook their first worldwide advertising campaign. The new company slogan was launched in Germany as “ich liebe es” on September 2, 2003―weeks before English language “I’m lovin’ it” campaigns were rolled out in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The list of back translations of McDonald’s famous slogan in a variety of other languages provided in the Wiki article underscores the flexibility required to produce a version of a slogan that appeals to a specific new audience. For example, different French translations were used in Canada and France, and more understated messages (“I like it” and “I just like it”) were deemed to be more appropriate in Latvian and Chinese.

Another technique for translating existing advertising text to another language is “transcreation”― giving the translator the liberty to use the ideas and concepts of the original text to create new content that sounds more natural and that is more culturally appropriate for the target language and market.   I sometimes use the transcreation approach (with the client’s consent) to give advertising slogans, website content, and corporate blog posts an authenticity and spark that would be impossible to achieve through literal translation.

The translations used in Amnesty International’s “Not here, but now” human rights campaign pictured below are good examples of how a message can be effectively transmitted in various languages when translators are given a little leeway in translating key concepts established for a multilingual campaign into a new language.

Amnesty International campaign in English

Amnesty International campaign in French

Amnesty International Campaign in German

Amnesty International Campaign in Italian

….Crafting an effective international advertising campaign does not necessarily require a big budget. The key is combining a simple, universal message with strong visual components in a format that does not require costly technical operations for changing languages. Opting for voiceover narration can reduce the cost of producing versions in additional languages, as it eliminates the need for subtitling and dubbing. The International Osteoporosis Foundation has launched two highly successful international public service announcement campaigns that are models of what can be accomplished by adopting an international outlook right from the start and choosing formats that allow for adapting key messages for a range of linguistically diverse target communities. The foundation’s PSA video The Train has been prepared for broadcast in at least six languages: English, French, Greek, Romanian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish; all of which can be viewed on its website. By choosing a universally understood metaphor (get out of the way of a moving train) and using simple voiceover techniques, IOF produced a powerful video that could be easily and economically recycled for new audiences throughout the world. The foundation’s second campaign, “Mannequin”, was focused on educating both the medical community and women over fifty in Asian countries about the importance of osteopathic screening and healthcare. The video was premiered in Hong Kong at a press conference marking World Osteoporosis Day and later broadcast in various languages throughout Asia.  The campaign also included outdoor advertising, print, and digital components, including a downloadable PDF “Medical Tool kit”.

Another winning combination of a clear message, engaging graphics, and a script that is easily translatable into any number of languages is the “The World is Your Home” TV spot, a joint project of the International Association of Public Transport and UNEP, which was developed and produced in English, French, German, and Spanish by McCann Erickson. The spot is now available in at least twenty languages and has won both the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA) Care award and a Green Award.

International sector advertising can contribute to a company’s internal and external communication strategies. An interesting example is a campaign undertaken by MG Lomb for an industrial company looking to rebuild its brand image and reassure customers after becoming a part of a multinational conglomerate through a buyout. Working hand in hand with the new parent company, MG Lomb and its client crafted a multilingual campaign (involving German, Arabic and Chinese translations) that went far beyond the damage control normally implemented to counteract negative client reaction after a buyout and successfully launched the firm’s new image as a vital branch of the multinational’s “family tree.”  Client response was so favorable that the CEO of the parent company included campaign ad copy in his own PowerPoint report delivered at an in-house sales meeting.

It’s difficult to establish any  limits for  changing the original text, title, or slogan in marketing translation. The titles of books and films are often considered to be malleable marketing material and they are often altered in translation to appeal to specific markets. While the Spanish title of the first volume of Steig Larssen’s Millennium Trilogy, Los Hombres que no amaban a las mujeres, closely follows the original Swedish title, the English language version of the same book was published as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The classic Hollywood movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s will be forever known in Spain as “Breakfast with Diamonds”―a translation that can at least be justified by the fact that “Tiffany’s” held no connotations at all for the general movie-going public in Spain when the film was released.

The main objective in translating any advertising or public relations material is communicating a positive message and making it stick in the mind of an entirely new public. Although it’s often contested in court, imitation can be not only the sincerest form of flattery but also the most irrefutable proof of an effective advertising campaign. Many years ago, a vegetable vender in an East African marketplace approached me with his own version of one of the world’s most unforgettable advertising slogans. “Madam,” he bellowed at me with a wide grin. “Things go better with a big, big potato!” He delivered the line with such aplomb that I bought the potatoes on the spot without negotiating the price. It still stands out in my memory as one of the cleverest adaptions of an advertising slogan I’ve ever heard.