Throughout the year, intercultural blunders in business, politics, and pop culture have given us a laugh and, occasionally, a reason to stop and think about the hazards of navigating an increasingly interconnected world. Some of these gaffes provide great lessons of what not to do, while others show good examples of how to recover or make amends for such mistakes. Almost all are cringeworthy, and a few are even humorous. In no particular order, here is my list of the Top 10 intercultural blunders in 2011, along with a list of winners who help us see a positive side to these unfortunate incidents.
In June, when Australian morning news anchor Karl Stefanovic had the enviable opportunity to interview the Dalai Lama, he good-naturedly shared a joke about his guest. Unfortunately, the joke fell flat because it was an untranslatable play on words, a one-liner stating, “the Dalai Lama walks into a pizza shop and says, ‘can you make me ‘one’ with everything?’” The incident, viewed by more than a million people on YouTube, illustrates the difficulty of conveying humor in other languages.
Winners: The Dalai Lama was incredibly gracious while Stefanovic humiliated himself, and Stefanovic displayed good character by being willing to laugh at himself.
While protestors demonstrated in Cairo at the start of the Egyptian revolution in February, Kenneth Cole attempted to make a joke of it on Twitter saying, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC.” Unfortunately, the tweet was viewed as an attack mocking the historic Arab Spring and offended many customers. The company deleted the insensitive tweet and later apologized.
Winners: The Egyptians are the tentative winners for having gained international support for their cause, but only time will tell if they can replace their previous dictatorship with a truly improved government.
In November, PUMA launched a new shoe design sporting the United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag colors for the 40th National Day in the country. Sadly, Emirati citizens expressed serious anger over this marketing attempt to place a respected symbol on an item considered very dirty in Arab culture. PUMA recalled all the shoes and issued an apology.
Winner: Despite the fallout from its good intentions, PUMA should be commended for attempting to use a locally created design that was identified via its Creative Factory website.
Leading up to Puerto Rican Day in June, MillerCoors displayed Spanish ads in New York that used a play on words to imply that Puerto Ricans are drunkards. The company invited viewers to “become Puerto Rican” with an allusion to a Spanish word meaning “get drunk.” The beverage company issued an apology and pulled down all the ads prior to the holiday.
Winners: Puerto Ricans maintained their dignity by standing up for themselves and not allowing MillerCoors to equate their patriotism with drunkenness.
After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March, Gilbert Gottfried made light of the situation via various posts to his Twitter account including, “Japan called me. They said ‘maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they’re all sinking.’” Many celebrities made distasteful jokes about the tsunami, but Gottfried was also the spokesperson for insurer Aflac, which reportedly generates 75 percent of its business from Japan. Aflac fired Gottfried immediately.
Winner: Aflac reportedly donated $100 million yen to the International Red Cross to assist in disaster relief for Japan.
After the tsunami in Japan, Microsoft tweeted the following message from its Bing Twitter account: “How you can #SupportJapan - http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.” The software giant was immediately accused of trying to profit from this tragedy, but Microsoft immediately apologized and donated the $100,000 without continuing the marketing campaign.
Winner: After that initial donation, Microsoft contributed millions more for disaster relief in Japan.
In November, Tobacco giant Philip Morris ran print advertisements in Pakistani newspapers and magazines, violating the Pakistan’s ban on such open advertisements of cigarettes. The company appears to have escaped with a slap on the wrist, but the penalties could have been much worse.
Winners: Pakistan has reduced the visibility of tobacco advertisements to minors.
During the Super Bowl in February, discount website Groupon ran a mock public service announcement about Tibet with a message that quickly changed from “Save the Tibetan people” to “Save the money.” This incited a bit of a backlash; however, as with many controversial advertisements, it is difficult to tell if the added publicity only helped the company.
Winner: In spite of the controversy, nonprofits including The Tibet Fund received additional publicity and donations via Groupon’s voucher program and matching funds.
Vogue Italia’s website ran a feature on so-called “slave” earrings. In response to public outcry, Vogue claimed the term was a mistranslation of what should have been called hoop earrings or ethnic style earrings; however, the original Italian text also used the Italian word for slave. Vogue has since removed the article and replaced it with an apology.
Winner: Black fashion blogger Cristina S. Brown wrote an interesting article called, “Lost in Translation: Why I’ll give Vogue Italia Another Chance,” and gave an interesting example of why a single mistake does not necessarily define an entire company.
In August, while promoting the film "Cowboys and Aliens" in Switzerland, actress Olivia Wilde tweeted that she was prepping her speech “in Swiss, Italian and Apache just in case.” Many followers and reporters felt this was a “gotcha” moment and helped her know there is no “Swiss” language, but citizens of Switzerland speak a handful of other languages. The star may have been joking — how serious could anyone really be about brushing up on three or four languages, including Apache, before the screening of a movie about aliens in the old West? If this was not a true intercultural blunder, the joke fell flat because the audience did not understand.
Winner: Even if few saw the original tweet as a joke, at least Wilde showed a sense of humor in her follow-up tweet, saying, “Oh good, turns out there's no Swiss language. That makes things simpler. I’ll throw in Cantonese just to keep things interesting.”