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Lost In Translation: 5 Botched Business Messages

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Getty Images

Tomato, tomahto? With corporate lexicon, seemingly small differences can cause a world of costly trouble, particularly when translation is required. Still, even the biggest businesses slip up surprisingly frequently with the messages they disseminate.

At best the embarrassing oversights are humorous and at worst deeply offensive. Whether accidentally hurling an affront on an inscribed bottle cap or obliviously asking women if they are lactating, these noteworthy and notorious lost-in-translation corporate blunders show it pays to keep skilled linguists or translators on staff.

1. Vitaminwater

The most recent example of widespread, faulty and improper translation within a marketing promotion caused some serious offense. Coca-Cola Refreshments Canada decided to play with Canada’s two official languages, French and English, printing one word in each language inside caps, with the idea consumers would combine the words they collected to create comical, nonsensical phrases. Some words, however, paired logically—and offensively—on their own. One customer opened her cap to find “You Retard.” (Retard means "delay" in French.) Other caps circulating raised eyebrows for including the word “douche,” intended to be interpreted as the French word for “shower.”

2. Got Milk?

Simple and eye-catching, the white moustache Got Milk? campaign is one of the most successful and widely recognized in U.S. advertising ever. When tailoring the campaign to target Latinos, though, the California Milk Processor Board directly translated over the same tagline. With the context or target changed, though, the message also mutated. Latinos understood the ads to be inappropriately asking “Are you lactating?” Employing slogans that spoke to family and tradition, for example, “Familia, Amor y Leche” (“Family, Love and Milk”), proved much more effective and appropriate.

3. Umbro

English sports apparel brand Umbro, beloved by football fans and players the world around, lost some its favor with a pair of running shoes it launched in 2002 called “Zyklon.” Official complaints from Jewish groups and denunciations of “appalling insensitivity” made the company realize it had given its shoes the name of an insecticide—Zyklon B—Nazis administered as a lethal gas in concentration camps.

4. Clairol

Hair care company Clairol, a division of Procter & Gamble, hit it big with its “Mist Stick” vapor curling iron. The company took its product to Germany and launched it there, name intact, only to later learn that “mist” in German is slang for “manure” or ”excrement"—far from what a company that bills itself as “Your Source for Hair Color” would desire.


Most international IKEA customers are used to being unable to pronounce the retailer’s Scandinavian product names. As the contemporary Swedish furniture retailer begins expanding more abroad, however, it has had to be more cautious when introducing some its bestselling goods as they are. In particular, the company has had to watch closely not to trip up in Thailand, where the “Redalen” bed sounds almost identical to the word that describes heavy-duty foreplay in Thai, and the “Jättebra” pot could be heard as a raunchy term for sex. The company smartly brought on a team of Thai speakers to consult and, when necessary, adjust product names.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]