Sunday, 31 May 2015

Offensive Car Names: Is It Really a Problem?

We all remember Shakespeare’s Juliet asking Romeo “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but when it comes to auto brands and car names it is a completely different story! Over the last few decades car makers have been criticised for offensive car names, mocked for translation errors and forced into boring naming conventions. But is it really something that car makers should be that worried about?

As you can expect, large car makers spend millions each year coming up with names that are supposed to evoke passions and emotions in us, driving us (excuse the pun) to want to buy that particular car. The more memorable the branding the more likely you are to buy to – getting a brand to be a household name is the holy grail of branding. And yet, even with all this emphasis on branding there are still countless names that make you cringe. Take for example the Jeep Cherokee. For most people in South Africa, this is just a harmless name, but for the Cherokee nation in North America, having a vehicle named after them without consultation can be offensive and yet this happened to with the Pontiac Aztek, the Jeep Comanche and the Mazda Navajo. Imagine what would happen if an automaker brought out a vehicle named the ‘Xhosa’ or ‘Afrikaner’?

Other times the name becomes silly, offensive or rude due to unforeseen translation problems. The Audi E-tron is a beautiful car, but if you spoke French you’d probably read it as the Audi étron which translates to ‘shit’ in English. The same goes for the Mazda Laputa (Spanish for ‘the whore’), Nissan Moco (Spanish for ‘snot’) and the Mitsubishi Pajero (Spanish for ‘wanker’).  Here in SA we seem to have missed the majority of translation errors with the closest being the Range Rover Evoque, which with the right Afrikaner accent and determination could come out as the ‘e-fok’ or the Volkswagen Amarok which turns into ‘I’m-a-rock’ which could give Afrikaners second thoughts.

To combat these faux pas many car brands are shifting towards names that are numerical or are neologisms. Think about the Hyundai range of i-vehicles such as the Hyundai i10, Hyundai i20 etc, BMW’s entire range as well as Mercedes’. Of course this isn’t proof against incident. Take the Toyota MR2 for example – pronounced in French it comes out as ‘merde’ or ‘shit’, the BMW 530d (read it upside down and back to front) or the Hyundai ix35 which when read backwards is supposed to read ‘sexi’ (which might not be offensive but is close). Other brands opt for neologisms such as the impossible-to-spell-right-on-the-first-try Nissan Qashqai, or the Hyundai Veloster.

The sad thing is that as much as I like neologisms when it comes to branding, there are so many car names and brandings that have become so ingrained with the brand that I forget that it could cause offense. And you know what? I’m finding it harder to care anymore when somebody points out that if you added three numbers to Clarkson’s licence plate and divided it by pi it almost equals the approximate number of people who stubbed their toes in the Falklands war. Names and numbers have history yes, but they also have the have the ability to shape new meanings. When I think about the Jeep Cherokee, I’m not thinking about the Native American Indian Nation. I’m thinking about how great it is for soft off-roading, and when I think about the Ford Escort, I’m not thinking about Harrison Ford with prostitutes but rather it being my friend’s first car and all the fun we had with it.

So yes, names have value and sometimes the meanings get lost in translation, and if you really want to be offended by them chances are that you will find a way, but maybe the more important meanings are the ones we give to them going forward? Now if you excuse me I’m going to try and persuade somebody to get working on the tongue-twistingly awesome Isuzu Zulu SUV.

Written by K C Myer
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