Debunked Legends

Did Pepsi Promise to Raise the Dead or Did Coca-Cola Invite China to Bite the Wax Tadpole?

Weird things can happen when mistranslating words from one language to another. See these articles for some examples. The results can be hilarious, embarrassing, or disastrous.

If you search for examples of how mistranslations have affected marketing, you will quickly learn that the Chinese language caused the advertising executives of soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi to apologize for getting things wrong. They are great stories. They are hilarious stories. But are they true?

Drink Pepsi and Bring Your Dead Ancestors Back to Life

The cola wars have pitted Pepsi against Coca-Cola in many regional battles. In the 1960s, Pepsi was attempting to build its market share and launched a campaign, “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.” It was successful in the United States by appealing to a younger generation that was seeking its own identity. In China, it carried a completely different appeal. Unbeknownst to company executives, the Chinese Pepsi commercials promised to bring dead ancestors back to life.

The misunderstanding arose not so much from the title of the campaign as it did from the song that went with it:

“Come Alive! Pepsi Generation” radio commercial

There’s a whole new way of livin’
Pepsi helps supply the drive.
It’s got a lot to give
To those who like to live
‘Cause Pepsi helps ’em come alive.
It’s the Pepsi Generation
Comin’ at ya,
goin’ strong!

As countless internet sources attest, when the “helps them come alive” part was translated into Chinese, it ended up promising that Pepsi had the remarkable ability to resurrect deceased ancestors. It is a great lesson for those in marketing that they should know their audience and their audience’s language.

Did it really happen?

Despite all the articles that proclaim it with utter confidence, there isn’t any evidence to back it up. It would be nice if we could find even one example of the advertisement or commercial, but there are none.

Additionally, although the basic premise of the story is repeated, there are variables that make the whole thing suspicious. Some go on to say that as a result of the mistranslation, Pepsi’s sales skyrocketed. Others say that the sale plummeted. The stories generally refer to “Chinese” without specifying whether it was Mandarin, Cantonese, or some other dialect of Chinese. Some stories say that sales in Taiwan were affected.

Even more telling, the story has jumped language and geographic region and has been repeated as having happened in Germany or Thailand.

Bottom line, it’s a wonderful story, and it’s fun to repeat it. Did it happen? We’re not convinced.

Coca-Cola: Bite the Wax Tadpole

Coca-Cola is one of the most successful brands in the world. The calligraphic script of its name is instantly identifiable — in English, anyway. Making the transition to cultures that do not use the Latin alphabet can be a challenge.

A Chinese Coca-Cola can

Coca-Cola entered the Chinese market in 1928. Advertising executives set to work to find a way to present “Coca-Cola” in Mandarin. Of the 40,000 characters in written Chinese, about 200 are pronounced with sounds that could be arranged to sound like the soda’s name. It was fairly easy, therefore, to launch the new Chinese marketing campaign for “ko-ka-ko-la.”

It sounds nice, but what did it really mean? Each of the symbols that were chosen represents a word or part of a word. According to a whole bunch of online sources, the symbols chosen literally translated as, “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse fastened with wax.”

It’s a hilarious story, but is it true? The first clue that it is apocryphal is that you can’t find any examples of advertising that were recalled. The fact is that Chinese Coca-Cola is, technically, “Coca-Coler.” Instead of selecting a la-sounding character at the end, the company opted for “lê,” meaning “joy” and pronounced, roughly, as “ler.” The sequence of characters it chose is the following:

Instead of the hilarious “bite the wax tadpole,” Coke’s Chinese name roughly means, “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice.” It was registered as the official Chinese trademark for Coca-Cola in 1928.

Again, like the Pepsi story, it’s fun to tell and it will get a laugh. In terms of historicity, however, we must remember the sage warning of Socrates:

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