The Chevy Nova That Wouldn't Go

Commonly Told Tale Is Just an Urban Legend

Chevrolet Nova
Chevy Nova. Photo by John Lloyd; licensed via Creative Commons.

Chances are you've heard how Chevrolet had problems marketing the Chevy Nova automobile in Latin America. Since "no va" means "it doesn't go" in Spanish, the oft-repeated story goes, Latin American car buyers shunned the car, forcing Chevrolet to embarrassedly pull the car out of the market.

Chevrolet's woes are often cited as an example of how good intentions can go wrong when it comes to translation.

There are literally thousands of references to the incident on the Internet, and the Nova example has been mentioned in textbooks and often comes up during presentations on cultural differences and advertising.

But there's one major problem with the story: It never happened. As a matter of fact, Chevrolet did reasonably well with the Nova in Latin America, even exceeding its sales projections in Venezuela. The story of the Chevy Nova is a classic example of an urban legend, a story that is told and retold so often that it is believed to be true even though it isn't. Like most other urban legends, there is some element of truth in the story ("no va" indeed means "it doesn't go"), enough truth to keep the story alive. And, like many urban legends, the story has the appeal of showing how the high and mighty can be humiliated by stupid mistakes.

Even if you couldn't confirm or reject the story by looking into history, you might notice some problems with it if you understand Spanish better than those who spread the story.

For starters, nova and no va don't sound alike and are unlikely to be confused, just as "carpet" and "car pet" are unlikely to be confused in English. Additionally, no va would be an awkward way in Spanish to describe a nonfunctioning car (no funciona, among others, would do better), just as in English we'd be more likely to say "it doesn't run" than "it doesn't go."

Additionally, as in English, nova when used in a brand name can convey the sense of newness. There's even a Mexican gasoline that goes by that brand name, so it seems unlikely such a name alone could doom a car.

A logical analysis of the story would also indicate its unlikelihood: It strains credibility to believe that a company as large as General Motors, with marketing executives and other employees and contacts throughout the world, wouldn't be aware of a negative meaning of a product name. In fact, according to one marketing analyst (Cecelia Bouleau, quoted in Business Mexico magazine), GM marketers discussed the possibility of confusion with the name, but "they kept the name and it sold very well. ... I think that the word is sufficiently incorporated into the language as meaning 'new' — as in bossa nova — that the criticism isn't valid."

GM, of course, isn't the only company to be cited as making advertising blunders in the Spanish language. But upon closer examination, many of these tales of mistranslation prove to be as unlikely and difficult to verify as the one involving GM.

Here are some of the other stories that are circulating about advertising or marketing blunders involving the Spanish language.

Unfortunately, although many of these tales seem unlikely (since major companies would test any ad campaign or product name with native speakers before using it) and are probably urban legends, most are difficult to prove or disprove. If you can ever find an advertising poster or something similar with any of these alleged blunders, please contact me.

The Story of the Vulgar Pen

Story: Parker Pen intended to use the slogan "it won't stain your pocket and embarrass you," to emphasize how its pens wouldn't leak, translating it as "no manchará tu bolsillo, ni te embarazará." But embarazar means "to be pregnant" rather than "to embarrass." So the slogan was understood as "it won't stain your pocket and get you pregnant."

Comment: Anyone who learns much about Spanish learns quickly about such common mistakes as confusing embarazada ("pregnant") for "embarrassed." For a professional to make this translating mistake seems highly unlikely.

Wrong Kind of Milk

Story: A Spanish version of the "Got Milk?" campaign used "¿Tienes leche?," which can be understood as "Are you lactating?"

Comment: This might have happened, but no verification has been found. Many such promotional campaigns are locally run, making it more likely this understandable mistake could have been made.

Wrong Kind of Loose

Story: Coors translated the slogan "turn it loose" in such a way that it was understood as slang for "suffer from diarrhea."

Comment: Reports differ on whether Coors used the phrase "suéltalo con Coors" (literally, "let it go loose with Coors") or "suéltate con Coors" (literally, "set yourself free with Coors"). The fact that accounts don't agree make it seem unlikely that the mistake actually happened.

No-Coffee Coffee

Story: Nestlé was unable to sell Nescafé instant coffee in Latin America because the name is understood as "No es café" or "It isn't coffee."

Comment: Unlike most of the other accounts, this story is demonstrably false. Nestlé not only sells instant coffee under that name in Spain and Latin America, it also operates coffeeshops with that name. Also, while consonants are often softened in Spanish, vowels are usually distinct, so nes is unlikely to be confused for no es.

Misplaced Affection

Story: A slogan for Frank Perdue chicken, "it takes a strong man to make a tender chicken," was translated as the equivalent of "it takes a sexually aroused man to make a chicken affectionate."

Comment: Like "tender," tierno can mean either "soft" or "affectionate." The accounts differ on the phrase used to translate "a strong man." One account uses the phrase un tipo duro (literally, "a hard chap"), which seems extremely unlikely.