Global marketers love bilingual campaigns for their ability to reach multiple audiences in multiple languages. The Coca-Cola Company’s latest attempt to communicate across Canadian cultural barriers for the Vitaminwater brand seemed as surefire as flipping bottle caps. Inside the bottle cap, print one random word in English and one word in French, mad lib style, and let the hilarity begin. Très jolie, eh? Why, it’s clever enough to make a Canadian consumer reach for another bottle of enhanced water.
That is, until the wrong person reaches for the wrong bottle. Blake Loates looks at the inside of her bottle cap and discovers the English-French combination, “You Retard.” Retard in French means “late.” It turns out that Blake’s sister, Fiona, is cognitively delayed. Blake mentions the matter to her father, Doug, who sends a letter to Coca-Cola:
“[Fiona] has had 22 surgeries. She has cerebral palsy and still gets fed with a feeding tube. She is cognitively delayed. Fifty years ago they might have called her retarded … What would YOU do if you opened up your bottle of Vitaminwater and on the bottom of the lid it read “YOU RETARD”?”
What are the odds of that happening? Of all the possible word combinations in French and English, and of all the possible women in the province of Alberta, Loates gets this particular combination. The spinning wheel of fate selects two words from two languages sure to provoke offense, and delivers them to a person sure to share the photo on Facebook, a witches’ brew born from the cauldron of social media.
In response, Coca-Cola sent an apology letter which Doug posted on his Facebook account.
The Loates’ passionate defense of Fiona’s dignity is noble, but professionally speaking (and this is supposed to be a professional blog), I’ve got to look at this client-side.
How do you prevent this kind of screw-up? As Mr. Quality Assurance, I could get all QA righteous on this and insist on a check on offensive terminology across languages. We do that for branding and marketing material all the time. But seriously, what are the odds of something like this happening? How many French-English cognates contain taboo words? And how likely is it that this one individual in Alberta would actually twist this top and read the inside? When was the last time you read a bottle cap? I think it was like 5th grade for me. And if I did happen to notice “You Retard” written inside the cap, I would have thought I was very lucky that I had been singled out in this way. I would want to take a picture and post it on Facebook, but I would put it off until the cap fell behind my desk or something and I forgot about it. End of story. I mean those are really long odds, and no harm done.
But still, the French and English languages are pin-cushioned with false friends that sound the same but have different meanings in each language. Hundreds of these words have led generation after generation of second-language speakers to commit countless errors and suffer humiliation.
In the case of “retard“ among Anglophones, the word has become caught up in what Harvard professor Steven Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill,” as euphemisms to replace old taboo words become the new taboo terms of choice.
The terms mental retardation and mentally retarded were invented in the middle of the 20th century to replace terms like idiot and moron, which had become offensive. Nowadays, activist groups such as Spread the Word to End the Word are working hard to excise disrespectful speech from the English language as part of an effort to increase awareness of underlying prejudice.
Next up at SWEW: is the name of Sephora’s deluxe lipstick, “Celebutard,” offensive or disrespectful?