A funny story about an advert

Filling the washing machine reminded me of a funny story. About an advertisement for washing powder.

A big American corporation wanted to sell into a new market. So they hired a New York creative agency for an advertising campaign.

This new market was in a developing country. International marketing is full of pitfalls. They decided to keep the advert simple.

The billboard posters showed only three images:

  1. a pile of dirty clothes
  2. their brand of washing powder
  3. clean and bright washed clothes

What could be simpler?

Trouble is, the ad backfired. It was a complete disaster. In fact it became a joke.


Because the advert was on billboards in an Arabic speaking country. Where people read from right to left.

The agency had managed to TOTALLY REVERSE the advertising message. Doh!

The people at the creative agency weren’t stupid. But they made assumptions. About the audience.

They failed to look at things from the customers’ point of view.

For example I’ve advised many entrepreneurs about doing business overseas. A corporation was planning a trade mission to China. Since I lived and worked in Shanghai for a while, I was able to advise them how to avoid potential problems.

I told them about certain numbers and colours that have specific meanings in China. I explained how social and business etiquette is very different. And I advised them about how the Chinese mindset can be confusing to Westerners.

This business trip could have been an embarrassing failure. But this single trip ended up creating a new arm to their brand in China and generated a number of lucrative new customers.

In contrast, the washing powder company failed completely.

The New York advertising agency didn’t take advice. They didn’t take think about cultural differences. They were locked in their Western mindset.

They could have avoided disaster. They could have asked any Arabic speaking person for feedback.

And immediately the problem would’ve been spotted. They could have avoided the waste of money. Not to mention the embarrassment.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Because businesses think they know best. So they don’t ask the customers.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get customer feedback.

You don’t have to commission expensive “market research”.

It’s more about attitude. A lack of arrogance. An acceptance that maybe we don’t know everything. And perhaps customers know stuff we don’t.

Just use common sense, modesty and decency.

And go ask a customer.