Superlatives are the best (except in China): A cautionary tale about Chinese translation

The Chinese market is the largest in the world, representing nearly 1.4 billion consumers. As a result, Chinese translation is a top priority for multinational brands looking to expand their presence across the globe.

Before you translate your current ad campaigns into Mandarin, Simplified Chinese or other common Chinese dialects, your business should be familiar with the unique challenges that come with advertising in mainland China. Strict laws and policies are in place to curtail fraudulent or misleading ad practices. The interpretation of these laws can make direct translation of advertisements and brand slogans a major faux pas that can lead to costly fines.  

Due to these stringent advertising laws, brands often have to make significant changes to ad campaigns and ad copy to stay in compliance with Chinese regulations. Here’s what you need to know before launching an ad campaign in the Chinese market.

Understanding China’s unique advertising laws

One of the most common issues companies face with the Chinese translation of ads is the use of superlatives in advertising. Puffery is so common in U.S. ads that consumers are accustomed to routinely dismissing claims like “best,” “brightest,” “strongest,” “sexiest,” “most powerful” and “most popular.” 

By contrast, China’s advertising law strongly discourages the use of superlatives in advertising. Unless a brand can provide concrete evidence of their claims, Chinese law regards these kinds of claims as deceptive. One of the goals of these laws is to reduce misinformation that may mislead Chinese consumers. Any use of superlatives that isn’t verifiable is subject to be labeled as false advertising.

Non-compliant brands face steep penalties

The costs of violating China’s advertising laws are significant: If the country’s State Administration of Industry and Commerce (SAIC) finds your brand’s advertisements do not meet these legal standards, your brand is subject to heavy fines and penalties.

A notable instance of these penalties comes from Proctor & Gamble’s Crest toothpaste brand. A Chinese review of the country’s advertisements found the brand exaggerated the whitening effects of its toothpaste in ad campaigns run within the country. Additionally, the review found that Crest had enhanced ad images to improve the whiteness of teeth displayed in the campaign.

China issued Crest a nearly $1 million fine, the largest ever reported at that time. Crest is far from the only global brand to feel the sting of these ad restrictions. In recent years, Apple, Nikon, and Volkswagen have all been subject to fines from China’s regulating authorities.

How to safely translate ad campaigns to meet Chinese market standards

For brands seeking to translate ad campaigns for the Chinese market, the changes required to meet these regulations are often so significant that translation isn’t sufficient. In many cases, transcreation is necessary to create entirely new, legally compliant ad content based on the campaign’s original messaging and intent.

Transcreation is often necessary because the source content is often difficult to separate from the superlative language used in the ad messaging. On top of this, wordplay and idioms used in one language typically do not translate effectively into another language. This is one reason brands should never use machine translation to handle ad content translations: Too many regulatory risks are involved, and even if you avoid those missteps, it’s likely that your messaging could still miss the mark.

With success in a new market and regulatory pitfalls at stake, an informed and thorough approach to translation is the best way to prime your brand for success. Before launching your next ad campaign in China, seek out an experienced translation partner capable of delivering the translation, editing, proofreading, and localized legal knowledge needed for a polished end product.

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