Vorsprung durch Bollocks – when is it OK for your brand to talk a foreign language?

by
September 25, 2011

Audi, VW, Mazda – they’ve all used their native tongue to sell their products in the English speaking world.  Audi were smart.  VW were dull.  And Mazda were desperate (IMHO).  Here’s why.

Audi have been using the strapline Vorsprung durch Technic since the 1970s.  It translates as “advancement through technology”.  A boring line for a boring brand.  As John Hegarty explains in his recent book “Hegarty on Advertising”, in 1982 his fledgling agency BBH was invited to pitch for Audi’s UK account.  “Audi’s problem back in 1982 was that it was seen as a very worthy car bought by accountants and lawyers.  It was a safe choice.  The profile of Audi drivers was 50 years of age and older.  Their cars matched their drivers: dull.”

Made in Belgium?

They decided to reposition the brand (using the new Quattro) as innovative, youthful, sexy and exciting.  But they also discovered that “a large number of drivers couldn’t tell where the car was made or which country it came from” and “if you’re marketing a piece of automotive engineering, being German is a benefit.”

Hegarty remembers that on one of his trips to the Audi factory in Ingoldstadt he saw “the line ‘Vorsprun durch Technic’ on a fading piece of publicity.  When I asked about it our guide dismissed it, saying it was an old line they used in the 70s.”  Back in the, UK, trying to come up with a unifying campaign theme, he thought “why not use this line?  And, importantly, let’s keep it in German.  Mad as it sounds, I reasoned it would really stand out.  Even though people wouldn’t necessarily be able to translate it, it would intrigue them and, of course the word ‘technic’ would make the audience understand that the line was something about technology.  Back in London Barbra Nokes added the words ‘as they say in Germany’ and a great campaign was born.”

German efficiency, British humour

Why did it work?  Several reasons, I believe.  Firstly, because it successfully invoked the brand’s German heritage.  Secondly, ‘as they say in Germany’ gave it a tongue in cheek tone which poked sly fun at the Germans’ humourless and obsessive attitude to all things engineering – it somehow managed to give the British audience a feeling of superiority, without mentioning the war.  Thirdly, by keeping it in a foreign language a boring line became slightly exotic and mysterious.  Also, a line that made no sense was, paradoxically, perfect – BBH were trying to make the brand less sensible!  Finally, nobody else had done it, so it would not only get attention, but demonstrate that this brand was innovative.

Running rings around the competition

25 years after Audi decided on a German strapline, VW do the same.  But with less effect.  We all know that the word Volkswagen  means “people’s car” in English, so it’s not like we wondered about this auto company’s roots.  Also, “Das Auto”, or “The Car” is a staggeringly unimaginative line.  Last but not least, it brands them as a follower, not a leader.

Lightweight commercial

Then we have a Mazda commercial showing in the UK where Program Manager Shigeo Mizuno speaks the whole thing in Japanese (actually, it could be Mongolian, Korean or even Innuit – how are we to know?).  The subtitles tell us that he decided to make the car lighter, so it would be more fun to drive.  Cut from Shigeo looking serious to car on mountain road, cut to car parts being weighed, cut to Shigeo looking happy and some subtitle with some crap about the meaning of life, cut to end frame and “Voom Voom” strapline (what language is that?).

So, why tell the story in Japanese?  I don’t think it is to invoke Japanese heritage.  Because Japanese engineering has been found wanting of late – sticky accelerators and dodgy nuclear power plants.  I think they are just pulling one of the oldest tricks in the book.

You sing it, I’ll buy it

In “The Craft of Copywriting”, written by Alastair Crompton in 1979, he remarks that “if it’s too stupid to say it, sing it.”  Advertisers who want to disguise the fact that they are talking complete bollocks still use this one.  How many brands have used opera over the last 20 years?  Too ****ing many!  Then there’s Go Compare, Halifax “hard day’s night”, Confused.com, to name but three that are driving viewers up the wall right now.

So, back to the Mazda commercial.  There’s no singing.  But the technique is the same.  Make it hard to tell what we’re saying, so they don’t realise we’re talking tosh.

Footnotes. 

Invoking a brand’s heritage has to be done sensitively.  When Jerry Della Femina was asked to advertise the first Japanese TV imported into the US he came up with the line “From those wonderful folk who brought you Pearl Harbor” (read his book of the same name).

This singing commercial for free credit reports is pretty good, and amusing.  Enjoy!

1 Comment
  1. Bella September 26, 2011 Reply

    Interesting. I've recently been thinking about how English is used in other languages for certain aspirational brands.

    In Spanish in the 90s, Fortuna cigarettes used to (I'm not sure they're allowed to advertise fags any more, even in Spain!) play on the 'for' - (For Life, For Friends, For Happiness).
    And Vueling airlines use loads of English vocabulary and even morphology (-ing signifies English borrowings) in Spanish to sound sexy and exciting. Their strapline is 'Flying hoy means Vueling'. They do the same thing on their French, Dutch and Italian sites.

    Unfortunately the English tone of voice is thoroughly earnest and not really very exciting ...(www.vueling.com)

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