Deliberately damning or lost in translation?


Oscar Wilde wrote that “the only thing in the world worse than being talked about, is not being talked about”. Or as we might say today, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But is it really immaterial what others say about you? Or the words you actually use?

US label Abercrombie and Fitch gained notoriety for only wanting “cool, good-looking people” to wear its clothes. It once even offered to pay a Jersey Shore cast member to not wear its clothing while filming the MTV reality show because they did not fit the ‘cool kid’ profile. Yet hipsters and the not-so-hip alike continue to flock to its stores. For this brand, there is indeed no such thing as bad publicity.

Closer to Stampa’s home, a brand that also seems to thrive on negative publicity is Dutch high street clothing retailer CoolCat. It regularly makes headlines for the explicit and often misspelt English obscenities on its T-shirts – aimed at six to 18-year-olds.

CoolCat says it “is always looking to push the limits”, and criticism of its T-shirt slogans hasn’t hurt sales. Most of its young clientele don’t seem to mind the crude language  – perhaps they have no idea how offensive it actually is.  But recently CoolCat overstepped the mark.

A special-edition T-shirt for the football World Cup, showing the Brazilian flag under the word ‘merda’ – a crude Portuguese insult of the players’ prowess – had to be withdrawn from sale after outraged Brazilians took to the streets in neighbouring Luxembourg to protest.

Subtle nuances

The negative headlines don’t seem to be hurting the brand – and are perhaps even enhancing its edgy image. What could damage it in the long run, however, is if its Dutch-speaking customers improve their understanding of English and realise what their T-shirts actually say.

While most Dutch people are relatively fluent in English, understanding the nuances of the language is a different story. Each culture has its own taboos and these aren’t always obvious to outsiders. In the Netherlands, where curses often relate to illnesses, it might be rare to see a Dutch person sporting anything emblazoned with the word ‘cancer’ but the English ‘f-word’ hardly raises an eyebrow.

That’s why it’s crucial for corporate communicators to involve native speakers when creating messages for an international audience. Non-native speakers often think their level of English is high enough; but only a native writer can produce a flawless text that takes account of the cultural subtleties and leaves no room for misunderstanding.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not understanding what you are saying.

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