We recently subscribed to “The Korea Times,” an English-language daily based in Seoul. The writing is pretty good, and the articles are entertaining. I especially enjoyed a June 30th article entitled, “Firms Use Wrong Slogans,” detailing the incorrect, often humorous usage of English in Korean companies’ ads. The article maintains that the incorrect usage of English is detrimental to Korean companies that want to cultivate a global image. I think of this often when I look up and see the ubiquitous Samsung Electronics’ “Anycall” billboards featuring the slogan, “Digital Exciting.” Say, what? Here are some of more humorous and head turning Korean slogans:
Samsung Electronics: "Digital Exciting Anycall"
SBS: "Humanism Thru Digital"
Seoul Milk: "Milk Itself"
Samsung Card: "Think Benefit"
Kookmin Bank: "Think Star"
National Agricultural Cooperative Federation: "Human Bank, Human Life"
It’s not a terrible faux pas to misuse English slogans. After all, Apple’s "Think Different" ad campaign is legendary. The Womens’ National Basketball Association slogan is "We Got Game." Half the artists on the Billboard music charts use a stage name that is a mispelling of a common English word or phrase (e.g. "50 Cent"). What sets these Korean ads apart is the perception that the marketers who created these slogans are not native English speakers and therefore naively institutionalized bad English grammar. True, some of these slogans really don’t make much sense at all in English. However, some of them may actually be pretty ingenious, especially if the ad gets you to focus on the slogan longer than you normally would. Will you spend more time thinking about "Anycall" if the slogan were properly written "Digitally Exciting"? Probably not. "Digital Exciting" turns native English speakers’ heads because it is written incorrectly. I have to believe that someone from Samsung Electronics, one of Korea’s most global and commercially successful companies, intentionally chose to use English grammar incorrectly when they made up "Digital Exciting."
Some Korean English slogans are actually very clever, perhaps too clever. Take Doosan’s slogan "We’ve" for example. It took me awhile to figure this one out. "We’ve" what? I noticed the word in Korean hangul that follows the English word means "web." "We’ve web," the slogan says in half English and half Korean. Great, so now English speakers won’t know how to read the Korean word for "web," and Korean speakers won’t know what "we’ve" means. I pondered Doosan’s cryptic slogan like a swami en route to Shangri-la until I finally understood what it really meant. I finally figured it out because I know enough Korean to be dangerous. The double meaning of Doosan’s slogan is "weave Web," conjuring images of a company that plays an integral role in building the World Wide Web. Pretty clever, I have to admit. Doosan sure got me to spend more time pondering their slogan than I really should have. Most people either wouldn’t bother to try or couldn’t decipher the double meaning at all. In that sense, Doosan’s slogan is much too clever to be a good slogan. Even if you understand the double meaning, "weave Web," you are still left wondering what Doosan really does. The slogan is cute, though.
I’m not sure if it is a big detriment to Korean companies to misuse English in their corporate slogans. Slogans that have awkward connotations such as "Milk Itself" probably should be avoided. American companies are just as guilty of using culturally awkward slogans. Who can forget that Chevrolet inadvertantly named one of its cars "No Go" in Spanish when it chose the name "Nova"? Perhaps the easiest way for Korean companies to avoid awkwardly annoying English phrases is to survey native English speakers from several different countries to get their feedback on suggested English slogans. I’m positive that "Humanism Thru Digital" would never have made the cut. Then again, maybe "Milk Itself" might have made it. One thing is sure–the makers of "Pocari Sweat Ion Supply Drink" really ought to consider renaming their drink.
I tried to bring some levity to work today, but the resulting humor was not what I expected. I wore my white Mickey Mouse tie with my charcoal gray suit and deep blue dress shirt. I’ve had the tie since I received it as a Christmas gag gift a long, long time ago. I digged through my closet to inventory my ties when I came across the Mickey Mouse tie. I’ve never really worn it because it’s such a bold fashion statement–who can take seriously someone who wears a Mickey Mouse tie? Maybe if I were a Disney executive I could get away with wearing it, but I’m not supposed to be in the entertainment industry. Lately work has been really hectic and in need of some lightheartedness, so I decided to be bold and wear my Mickey Mouse tie. I thought it was a brilliant idea–subtle humor. Keep in mind that my work iis a fairly buttoned-down place. It was easy for me to assume that someone would notice if I came to work with a comical tie. I even brought a backup tie, a red power tie, in the event that my brave move backfired.
What happened at work was funny, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. Not one person noticed my tie! White on deep blue is hard not to notice. People must have been so preoccupied thinking about work that they weren’t aware of their surroundings. It’s like getting a haircut and then coming to work expecting people to notice. No one noticed the Mickey Mouse tie. I had to laugh. People were so serious and distracted at work that they didn’t even notice humor right in front of their faces. I talked to many people today, and they looked right at me and the tie dangling down my chest. Perplexed, I finally asked a few people why they hadn’t noticed. They laughed heartily and responded, "Well, I had no idea!." Oh, so now you notice. When a place becomes humorless, it’s sometimes not enough to lend humor. Sometimes you also have to wake up the audience too.
Based on the lack of enthusiasm for my moderate attempt at humor, I’ve decided to add my Mickey Mouse tie to my regular business attire. At least I’ll be laughing.