A large multinational corporation once attempted to sell baby food in an African nation by using packaging designed for its home country market. The company's regular label showed a picture of a baby with a caption describing the kind of baby food contained in the jar. African consumers took one look at the product, however, and were horrified. They interpreted the labels to mean that the jars contained ground-up babies!
In areas where many of the people are illiterate, the label usually depicts a picture of what the package contains. This very logical practice proved to be quite perplexing to one big company. It tried to sell baby food in an African nation by using its regular label, which showed a baby and stated the type of baby food in the jar. Unfortunately, the local population took one look at the labels and interpreted them to mean that the jars contained ground-up babies. Sales, of course, were terrible.5
[Collected on the Internet, 1999]
When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful Caucasian baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what's inside, since most people can't read.
Origins: One of the perennial favorites in the "bad marketing examples" sweepstakes is the tale of the mythical baby food company that failed to consider cultural differences and thereby ended up repulsing consumers in a foreign market. In this case the horrified victims are Africans, who, used to judging the contents of packaged food products by the pictures on their labels, are aghast to find jars with drawings of babies on them.
Perhaps this tale is so popular because it enables us to feel smugly superior to both the should-have-known-better multinational corporation, and the foreign rubes who don't understand what a jar of baby food is. Note that the examples offered are marvels of non-specificity. No company is mentioned by name in the first two, but by the third a standard law of urban folklore has kicked in and the largest and most well-known purveyor of baby food in America (Gerber) is now identified as the perpetrator. More important, all three examples cite no locale more specific than "Africa," as if the entire continent — from Tunisia to South Africa, from Senegal to Somalia — were home to a homogeneous mass of people, all of whom share a single culture and therefore all think and act alike. No doubt we're supposed to conjure up the old stereotypical images of a mysterious land chock full of dark-skinned, scantily-clad, masked savages with bones through their noses who dance rings around large iron pots of missionary soup in time to the beat of tribal drums. Where else
This tale is cultural prejudice at its worst; an apocryphal anecdote based on the premise of a whole society of illiterates who don't know what baby food is are credulous enough to believe that someone would sell
The coup de grace in debunking improbable tales is to find other (preferably earlier) examples and variants of the same type of story, but with differing details. In this case, we have hit the mother lode. Consider the following tidbit from a 1958 Reader's Digest:
The tinned-goods firm that supplies us has been advised that it must find some means of convincing the natives that its baby food is made for babies and not of babies.4
But that's not all — the same motif turns up again, this time with the onus of misunderstanding resting square on the shoulders of the "dumb foreigners" or illiterate adults right here in America:
Some Hmong bought cans of Crisco believing that the label — a picture of golden brown fried chicken — depicted the contents.2
Adults who cannot read cannot look up phone numbers. In restaurants, they always order the house special. Their children's homework is a mystery. They buy cans of Crisco, thinking it's fried chicken, because that's what the picture on the label shows.3
Last updated: 8 May 2011
2. Arax, Mark. "Hmong's Sacrifice of Puppy Reopens Cultural Wounds." Los Angeles Times. 16 December 1995 (p. A1). 1. Cherrington, David and Laura Zaugg Middleton. "An Introduction to Global Business Issues." HRMagazine. June 1995 ISSN 1047-3149 (p. 124). 3. Foster, Catherine. "Overcoming Illiteracy." The Christian Science Monitor. 8 September 1988 (p. 14). 5. Ricks, David A. Blunders in International Business. Cambridge, U.S.A.: Blackwell, 1993. ISBN 1-55786-414-4 (pp. 28-29). 4. Reader's Digest. "Life in This Wide World." February 1958 (p. 60).