Epic fail. Ten classic communications blunders.

Whether it’s a typo, a gaff or a plain lack of common sense, sometimes when it comes to communications failures, you just have to laugh.

  1. The unintentional irony. Welcome to the great state of…wait…
  2. Lost in translation. NASA managed to lose its $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter back in 1999 because one team measured in metric and the other used English imperial. It meant they couldn’t accurately calculate the Orbiter’s acceleration and it literally got lost in space.
  3. The career-limiter. Spotted in the New York Times…oh dear, and on a full page spread as well. Some poor copywriter is going to get fired.Typo in NY Times advert.
  4. The Donald Rumsfeld. A classic case of using as many words as possible to say nothing at all: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
  5. The down with skool. Everybody loves a little irony. Painted on a road in near Northwood Elementary in the town of Kalamazoo in the state of Michigan.Misspelled road sign: Shcool
  6. The joke they didn’t get. In 2012 the American satirical newspaper, The Onion, ran a piece declaring North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, to be the sexiest man alive. The blunder came when Chinese state newspaper, The People’s Daily, mistook this for a genuine poll and proceeded to run a 55-page photo spread on him, directly quoting the Onion article’s assertion that he was a “Pyongyang-bred heartthrob.” A clash of cultural conceptions it would seem.
  7. The wishful thinking. A preemptive PR disaster from 2003. In 2008 even Bush himself admitted that having that banner up so long before hostilities had been resolved “conveyed the wrong message.”George W. Bush: Mission Accomplished
  8. The legal loophole. In America, if you spot some chicken wyngz for sale, don’t laugh, it’s not a typo. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) issued guidelines last year that state you can use the word ‘wyngz’ for wing-shaped products that do not actually contain any wing meat. This takes mangling language to a whole new level. Perhaps Findus should start selling ‘Beaf’?
  9. The ‘we didn’t mean it like that’. Shell thought it was a good idea to open up its Arctic drilling advertising campaign to suggestions from the public. Their site is full of examples like this. I’m not sure Shell thought this one through.Example of failed Shell campaign
  10. The inconvenient truth. Finally, it wouldn’t be fair to compile a list like this and ignore our own blunder. Yes, ‘epic’ is currently one of the most misused words in the English language. These failures in no way relate to long works portraying heroic deeds over an extended period of time. I know. Bad Bad Language. All we can say is FTW!
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7 Responses to Epic fail. Ten classic communications blunders.

  1. Why classify #4 as “to say nothing?” It is clearly understandable, meaningful, and expresses an important idea with applications to many systems. Explanations can be found here and here.

    • John says:

      Agreed. It’s a really useful writing exercise actually – take what Rumsfeld was saying and try to write it more clearly. It’s not easy.

      • How about “We don’t always know what we don’t know”?

        • John says:

          To paraphrase Einstein: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Rumsfeld identifies 3 distinct categories of knowledge. Your sentence doesn’t do that with the same clarity.

          • Fair point. Although I was just trying to get to the kernel of what he was saying. I think Clare’s point was more about the irony of his statement, given all the known knowns that he wilfully ignored. I’m just read The Insurgents which doesn’t paint a flattering portrait.

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