Haven't you always wanted to win a body bag?

I'm sure you are familiar with this situation: you're out shopping and return with things you didn't even have on your list in the first place. That's what happened to us last year during one of our Saturday morning shopping excursions. Even before entering through the turnstiles we noticed one of those raffle stands that frequently clog the entrances to supermarkets. A tall cardboard structure in the easily recognisable colours of a well-known beverage manufacturer. Filling in a reply card from the stack, and dropping it through a slit into the box (and with a bit of luck) can win you something you probably always wanted to have, but never bothered to buy. In passing I caught a glance of the coveted prizes advertised in big letters on the cardboard box. First I'm surprised, then I can barely keep myself from laughing out loud. It's ... body bags!

Who in the world would raffle off a prize like this? A German beverage producer, as mentioned above, and not a small one at that! This producer specialises in a particular type of alcoholic beverage and is now the market leader selling more in volume of this type of beverage than all other German competitors combined. And why would they think raffling off body bags would improve their profit intake?? Well, the fact of the matter is, they don't.

Although it's a German company and a German ad targeted at the German market, they chose to use an expression most people would likely recognise. After all, "body" is all too familiar, as in "The Body Shop", the "Body" (as appropriated by German to mean "bodysuit"), and of course "Bodybuilding". "Bag" is another word of many that has seeped its way into a more modern, "cooler" German. The item pictured in the add is slung jauntily over the shoulders across the body. "Body" + "bag". What could be more logical than "body bag"?

What is interesting is that "body bag" is practically the only English word used in this ad, despite the existence of a perfectly appropriate German word. In fact, the item is a rather slight variation of the generic backpack. However, the company had obviously decided that the perfectly appropriate German word for "backpack" -- "Rucksack" -- was probably not hip enough to attract the younger target group.

In doing so this beverage producer fell into a trap that catches surprisingly many companies which attempt to use or create a "fashionable" foreign-language word to market their products, often overlooking the possibility of its original usage or meaning. To a German marketing or PR manager, "body bag" might have sounded like an obvious choice, perhaps not realising that English can at times be as prosaically literal as German. However, in English a "body bag" can be only one thing, a body bag!

With this unexpected blunder, this beverage producer joins a considerable list of reputable companies that have forgotten that international English, even in its most modern usage, is more than just a stock pile of hip-sounding words and images associated with them. Interestingly enough, this list contains a number of names for beverages which couldn't possibly have been marketed in many other countries. In Japan a soft drink is sold under the name "Piss", while Poland has seen the introduction of a popular drink called "Fart".

But what does this have to do with intercultural communication? Firstly, it is an example of communication, where information is exchanged. Through its ads, the beverage producer communicates with potential customers in order to trigger a certain reaction in the customer ("that looks interesting!"), or, better yet, a certain action (supplying information on the card).

However, as soon as the manufacturer and customer involved are members of different cultures, the whole issue becomes intercultural. This doesn't even require an international setting, as is the case in this example. Manufacturers cannot afford to forget that a certain fraction of the customers in the domestic market does originate from foreign cultures, with varying linguistic and cultural background. Not only do manufacturers set themselves up as the butt of many jokes, but run the risk of simply not reaching significant sectors of their market. The greatest risk is, of course, that even then they may not know it.

This becomes a more critical issue if you enter the international market. This particular producer exports its beverages to several dozen countries on four continents, among which are certainly several countries in which English is spoken. One can only imagine the damage to image that could result. Such image loss is difficult to repair.

The question is, was the beverage producer aware of his error? To find out, I sent a fax directly to the company headquarters. Not surprisingly, I received a direct reply thanking me for bringing this to their attention, and admitting that they had indeed not been aware of the native meaning of the expression in question. Luckily, they added, they have no plans to extend this particular ad campaign to other countries.

Nonetheless, the problem still remains that even in the domestic market the company has made a blunder with a portion of potential customers. There is a considerable difference between an ad campaign that isn't as successful in attracting new customers as hoped, and one that drives existing customers away. One of the most basic tenets of Marketing 101 is that it's much easier to keep existing customers than to attract new ones. When it becomes obvious that an ad campaign can't even keep existing customers, it's time to pull the plug and abort the campaign.

Whether the beverage producer had the same insight is hard to say; however, shortly after my fax to the company all raffle stands and reply cards disappeared without a trace, probably for the best. Attempts to acquire a few more of their reply cards for posterity came up empty-handed.

How does the situation look now, more than a year later? Browsing the company's web site recently, I found the same knapsack model in their online shop. It has been renamed, of course, but if you look closely you can still find its original name: viewing the HTML source of the web page reveals the name of the image file for the knapsack. It's still called bodybag.jpg.

Stephan Petersen, June 2001

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