advertisement adaptation

Tourism in la Belle Province and Adaptation...A Losing Battle? Part One

This winter, I taught a university level adaptation class. Advertising adaptation is an infinitely fascinating subject. What seems to stick out most is how haphazard the actual process is.

There is an entire industry that somewhat overlaps with advertising adaptation. We know it as "localization", the adaptation or translation of websites and computer applications. This well-structured and many-tiered discipline goes beyond straight forward translation. It calls upon vital cultural, ethnographical and anthropological elements along with a powerhouse of computer programmers and engineers armed with cutting-edge software, hardware, all of it overseen by global project managers and business strategists. Take the hard-core computer aspect out of the equation and the resulting structure can apply to adaptation as it is done by the bigger players within the advertising industry.

And then you have individual translators who try their hand at ad work. Afflicted with language-oriented tunnel vision preventing any sort of viable cross-border exportation, the resulting translation can be very disappointing.

I know, I have presented two extremes. So now just imagine everything that can be found in's the Wild West!

The bottom line of the advertising industry is to sell something. To sell, you have to appeal to a well-defined market. You have to understand how they feel, what they eat, what gets on their nerves and you have to have a general sense of their day-to-day existence. Otherwise, forget it, they won't even notice you or they will laugh at you, or even worse, they will get really MAD at you! So, how do you avoid this? You research. All clients do it so that their advertising agencies can come up with appropriate and successful ads. And success is rated by...that bottom line...dollars; how much more product was sold as a result of the advertisement (although as Mathieu Guidère has aptly pointed out, no one has come up with an explicit formula!)

I also know I haven't written anything here that comes as a surprise to anyone. And yet, examples of grand and not so grand blunders abound. They can be found everywhere on the Internet, bloggers especially love to point them out. Some "faux-pas" are hysterically funny while others leave you wondering what was going through the head of the people in charge of the project. You don't even have to go that far. Here in Montreal, glancing at the daily papers is usually sufficient to notice questionable blunders. My students had a ball bringing them to me all throughout the semester and it wasn't even an assignment! (Probably will be next time though.)

So how do Tourisme Montréal and Tourisme Québec fit into this picture? Unfortunately, very easily and not on the good side.

Back in December 2009 (Tuesday the 8th, to be precise), the Globe and Mail  printed an article that I brought into class: "Quebec faces backlash over English-only ads". This is a classic story about bad research in advertising/adaptation. Tourisme Québec sent out a glossy English-only brochure praising the merits of snowmobiling in Quebec. The target market was Ontario (the second largest French-speaking population outside of Quebec) and the northeast United States.

Ontario had a field day. How was it that Quebec had the audacity to send out material in English only! The reaction was so heated, director of communications for the Quebec Ministry of Tourism, Michel-André Roy had to apologize and the ministry decided to adapt the campaign and send out new French-version brochures. Hmmmm...this is what happens when you don't research your target audience.

Now the problem is defined as such here. But if you step back, could it be symptomatic of a larger issue? Has Quebec turned so onto itself that it cannot get a sense of what happens to be around it? I believe Northrop Frye called this the "garrison mentality". Quebec has erected such tall walls around itself in order to prevent anything from coming in and attacking that it has great difficulty getting a sense of what happens to be growing in the garden next door... Ok, the walls are "semi" or "pseudo" transparent and perhaps even a tad unidirectional, but there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing your neighbour for pete's sake. That's the part that makes my hair stand up on the back of my neck. Does Quebec (Ministry of Tourism) have any idea how Quebec is truly perceived? Grand temps pour une étude, non?

The mistake made by Tourism Quebec is the one of an amateur. Who made this decision? Had that person (or persons) even set foot in Ontario before? Had they even considered an adaptation during the whole process? 

But the tourism saga does not end here. In part two, I will give you a glimpse of an English-language hotel brochure from Tourisme Montréal. It will have you all questioning the quality of adaptation coming out of this organization. Well, it had me worried anyways...