At the Douglas Cosmetics beauty supply store downtown, Christine Arnold surveys the French phrases and translations on the many glamorous-looking packages -- and laughs. As a native French speaker, Arnold trips over the many mistakes.
"No, that's not right; that's not really a French word," she says of a Lancome foundation's packaging. "And that's not really a correct translation. That accent is not right -- you don't need it."
To her trained eye, the lapses are irritating. But to the largely American customers who walk through the popular boutique, Arnold knows, the rampant use of French -- correct or not, needed or not -- adds a certain je ne sais quoi. With French, it just looks more sophisticated. More chic.
With the beauty and personal care industry increasingly global -- and U.S. exports soaring -- foreign translations are needed more than ever. Marketing experts say manufacturers are seizing the moment to enhance their packages with non-English phrases, words, accents and suffixes -- not just to inform but to catch the consumer's eye and to make products appear more sophisticated and successful.
Whatever the political sensitivities between the United States and France, the language of choice is increasingly French.
"When you have several languages on the label, it does show that you are a widely sold, respectable company that sells in several countries," said Herberto Calves, director of marketing for the all-natural skincare product company Kiss My Face Corp., based in Gardiner, N.Y. The company is about to repackage its entire product line with bilingual labeling in English and French, he said, largely for marketing reasons. A very small amount of the company's business comes from overseas.
"It does add something, seeing that we are a multinational company. Even though we're a tiny company, it gives it a little more credibility," Calves said. "If this product is accepted there, it's good enough for here."
Foreign products must meet the labeling requirements of countries where they land on store shelves. In most places, the rules are fairly minimal -- except in Quebec, the French-speaking Canadian province of 7.5 million people, where everything on the label must be translated into French. In the rest of Canada, Europe and Asia, the requirements generally mandate translation of just the product description, and maybe also the directions and ingredient list.
But manufacturers often go far beyond the requirements, translating all manner of wording, from the prosaic, such as the now common New!/Nouveau!, to the playful, such as the phrase on bottles of some Tony & Tina cosmetic products: Think Cosmically/Pensez de facon cosmique.
A new line of eyebrow care products made by Ardell, a division of American International Industries Inc. of Los Angeles, gets especially cute with its French translation, using voila! on its packaging and translating it into the English non-word "Wa La!"
Indeed, the company has had to rework all its packaging in three languages to satisfy one of its biggest buyers, U.S. retailer Sally Beauty Supply, spokeswoman Peggy Hoebink said.
"These are products that are really for the American market, but they have French and Spanish on them," Hoebink said. "It's a twist. Before you would've been creating those packages for another country, not necessarily for here."
In a fast-paced market with hundreds of new brands hitting the shelves every year, marketing experts say consumer product companies are doing whatever they can to attract consumers and possibly open new markets that might make profitability more likely -- and language helps pave the way.
"There's two broad issues -- one is regulatory, the other is marketing. There's obviously an intersection between the two of them," said Robert C. Sprung, foreign language consultant to consumer product companies and author of the book "Translating into Success."
"People are just generally more savvy about branding and creating global brands," he said. Exports of U.S. cosmetics, makeup and skincare products were up 41 percent last year from 2002, after rising just 3 percent in the previous two years.
Marketing experts say personal care companies are using this worldliness to appeal to their U.S. base. Despite some anti-French sentiment, the language still conveys an image of sophistication unlike any other, they say, as consumers associate the language with the many French icons of style and luxury, such as Coco Chanel and Hermes.
"In the U.S. we have this image of French as standing for glamour," said Mary Lou Quinlan, a marketing consultant who has worked with companies such as Clairol Inc., Elizabeth Arden Inc. and Maybelline Inc. to help them understand female consumers. "Even in the hallways of these companies they won't call it a cream, even if they're from Kansas. It's a creme."
And it works. Even with no ability to understand or translate a package's label, consumers respond favorably to foreign words, according to the research of Timothy C. Brock, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and past president of the Society for Consumer Psychology. He says it is a natural coping mechanism rooted deep in the psyche, beginning when infants must parse the unintelligible speech of their parents and children must extrapolate what they do not understand. As adults, he said, people do the same thing when they see a foreign language on a product package or advertisement.
"People will elaborate on unintelligible text, and they'll usually elaborate on it in a way that's favorable to the product," Brock said.
On the other hand, playing with foreign languages on packaging can be a slippery slope, especially when it comes to using "Frenchified" English -- made-up words that sound French. These might play well to American audiences, language consultant Sprung warns, but he is seeing more examples of names that backfire as companies try to go global. Sprung points to products such as Tresemme, Citre, Le Patch and Revivanail as the types of names that might confuse and bother French-speaking consumers, who tend to be especially concerned about protecting their language to begin with.
Arnold, the French-speaking saleswoman in the Douglas store, is a good example. She sells Frenchified products to Americans all day long. But for her? Mais non.
"Ooh, when they make it up, or they spell it wrong, or they use the wrong gender, le and la? I hate that," she said.