International Business: Berlitz advertising uses language of humor to attract language learners

Published: Friday, Aug. 12 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

The overabundance of comical misunderstandings found in international communication has given Berlitz Corp. a lot of material to use in advertising its language learning services. Some of these humorous commercials have gone viral.

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If you have not yet seen the hilarious Berlitz ad featuring a young recruit to the German Coast Guard, stop and view it on YouTube before reading on! A text description simply cannot do justice to this hilarious commercial that went viral a few years ago and has since been viewed by many millions of Internet users via multiple postings on YouTube.

As a recap for those of you who have seen the ad, it opens with an experienced German Coast Guard officer showing a much younger recruit around a small room with radar and other monitoring equipment. After the older officer leaves, the young man hears his first distress call come over the radio.

“Mayday, mayday!” pleads an unidentified voice in English. “Hello, can you hear us? Can you hear us? Can you (static interruption). Over… We are sinking! We are sink…”

“Hello,” responds the nervous young Coast Guard recruit in a thick German accent. “Zis is da German Coast Guard.”

“We are sinking!” cries the voice. “We’re sinking!”

“What,” stammers the young recruit, “are you ‘sinking’ about?”

The ad then cuts instantly to a triumphant German tune and a screen that reads, “Improve your English,” followed by the Berlitz logo.

The overabundance of potentially comical misunderstandings that arise in international communication has given Berlitz Corp. a lot of material to work with in advertising its services. The German Coast Guard commercial is the most well known, but many additional Berlitz campaigns have employed humor to motivate people to learn another language.

In early 2011, an award-winning, extraterrestrial-themed Berlitz campaign warns us, “Don’t be an alien in a foreign country.” However, most of the company’s ad campaigns draw their inspiration from more realistic situations.

Some ads, like the Coast Guard video, illustrate the potential disasters that can result from poor second-language skills. One print magazine ad campaign shows the embarrassed faces of people cringing and laughing at real, awkward, broken English phrases like “I laugh me dead,” “I think me goes a light up” and “I shame me so for my English.”

Other Berlitz ads have played on the perceived attractiveness of models in some cultures. You have probably seen a similar Rossetta Stone ad that shows a determined farm boy holding an Italian lesson under his arm with the subtext, “He was a hardworking farm boy. She was an Italian supermodel. He knew he would have just one chance to impress her.”

The comparable Berlitz print ad aimed at men displays a blond female model with the text, “The good news: she’s Swedish. The bad news: You don’t speak it.” The version targeted at women shows a dark and handsome male model with the text, “The good news: he’s Italian. The bad news: You don’t speak it.”

Another Berlitz campaign tried to motivate people to learn another language by showing how it can help them defend against and triumph over those who would otherwise take advantage of them.

In one commercial, three Cantonese-speaking poker players attempt to take advantage of a black man’s presumed inability to speak the language, only to be outsmarted because the man had apparently studied Chinese with Berlitz. Other language schools have taken this joke to the animal kingdom and created ads where a fish, a cat and a bird learn another useful language to fend off would-be attackers.

A more recent series of Berlitz ads pokes fun at the often silly and improbable phrases used in language instruction like, “the roof will fall in 20 seconds” or “the matador in roller skates will pass by here.”

Not all Berlitz ads are humorous. In Japan, several ads use the fear of shame to motivate potential language learners. Japanese businessmen are shown in video and in print to have their minds go completely blank, at a loss for words, in important board meetings and presentations where they would be expected to communicate in English.

Berlitz does not hold a monopoly on good international advertising. Occasionally, a competing language instruction agency will conjure up a witty ad reminiscent of Monty Python’s Hungarian Phrasebook sketch. Some of Berlitz’s commercials have just been odd gimmicks, and others might be considered insensitive. However, Berlitz should be applauded for consistently creating numerous memorable advertisements that almost double as public service announcements for the importance of effective international communication.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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