Ads, Words, and Ideas

Foreign languages have been creeping into UK mainstream media for a while, and the increasing popularity of subtitled film and TV dramas has been mirrored by a rise in the use of foreign languages in TV, print and digital advertising.

French brands have traditionally capitalised on their language in the UK market by using French product names (L’Oréal Sublime, Préférence) and French-sounding taglines (“Evian Live Young”, “C’est cidre not cider”). These subtle references play on our associations with French culture (“cidre” is more refined, French cosmetics are more luxurious etc.) without straying too far from English.

In contrast, the ad breaks shown entirely in French with English subtitles (i.e visible translation) during Channel 4’s The Returned this summer was a first for British TV. What was essentially a publicity stunt to promote the French drama series also showed how the mass media is becoming more receptive to unadulterated foreign tongues.

It’s not only TV channels that are occasionally pushing the boundaries either. Other languages and even different alphabets are trickling into ad copy in both print and outdoor advertising. The international Russian magazine SNOB ran a campaign in Russian not so long ago with ads appearing on the sides of London buses as well as in print.

These ads were clearly aimed at Russian-speaking readers but different scripts are also being used in typography to catch the English-speaking consumer’s eye. Bottles of Russian Standard Vodka are labelled with the brand name written in Cyrillic, for example, and a recent ad for Jordans cereal featured the tagline “Try it on yoghurt” in Greek (“Δοκιμάστε το σε γιαούρτι”).

“Δοκιμάστε το με γιαούρτι” would’ve been more idiomatic if you ask me, but that’s not the point. Greeks weren’t the target market, English speakers were. Both brands focus on the country of origin of these products, and using the Greek and Cyrillic scripts not only makes the labelling and ads eye-catching, but also taps into our cultural associations in the same way as the French brands mentioned earlier.

Foreign words and ideas don’t always work in UK advertising, however. The saccharine girliness of Danone’s Perle de lait TV ad didn’t translate well into a culture where cute is more meerkat territory than ingénue, and taglines are often adapted so the message is communicated more effectively. In the Kooples’ ad shown above, for example, the nonchalant irony of the French tagline “en couple depuis 3 ans, au moins” was ditched in favour of a short, off-hand tone in the English version “for 5 minutes”.

Brands rely on culturally-specific attitudes and associations to get their message across, and this is why ad copy is sometimes foreignised as well as adapted in translation. The ads mentioned above may be one-offs for now, but our increasing exposure to other cultures and languages in the media represents a chink of light in the doom and gloom surrounding British monolingualism.