When a new international poster for Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming Barbie movie hit the internet last week, it went viral, apparently for all the wrong reasons.
The French version of the poster looks innocent enough. It features star Margot Robbie as the pink-clad doll who comes to life and Ryan Gosling as her blonde sidekick Ken. But the French slogan: “Elle peut tout faire. Lui, c’est juste Ken” – meaning “She can do anything. He’s just Ken” — has an NSFW double entendre meaning in French slang, true know is another word for ‘fuck’. So the slogan becomes, “She knows how to do everything. He just knows how to fuck.”
If you read it that way, Gerwig’s PG-13 comedy satire becomes a raunchy R-rated sex comedy.
The internet, being the internet, has picked up on this. Several French Twitter users tweeted pictures of the posters with comments about the “accidental” or “unfortunate” translation. Naturally, it went viral, with some of the original tweets being viewed millions of times.
Why this is so hilarious for French speakers requires some explanation. In the so-called “leaveslang, which first became popular in the 1980s, French words take on new meaning by changing the order in which the syllables are pronounced. Tomb (fall) becomes concrete (specific). In this case, more lewd or its abbreviated version, niquer (to fuck) becomes queni or Kenyawhich has been shortened to ordinary over time know.
Then, in the Barbie catchphrase, “Lui, c’est juste Ken” changes its meaning because c’est (he is) and say (he knows how) are homophones. “He’s just Ken” becomes “He just knows how to fuck.”
In France, the Barbie poster caused little shock and outrage – it takes more than a vulgar pun to startle La Grande Nation – and at first most francophones assumed the ambiguity was the result of a bad or too literal translation. But the pun was so clear – know as slang for “fuck” is common for anyone under 30 in France – many began to suspect that the poster’s NSFW message was a deliberate act of guerrilla marketing.
A closer look at the slogan seems to confirm this. Barbie’s original English slogan reads: “Barbie is everything. He’s just Ken.’ But the French translation of the first line is not “Barbie est tout” (“Barbie is everything”), the literal translation, but rather “(Barbie) peut tout faire” (“Barbie can do everything”), a line that fits nicely in the slang-y Ken line with the dirty connotations.
“It’s definitely intentional; there’s no way a French speaker wouldn’t have noticed the dirty pun,” says a French marketing manager from a competing studio The Hollywood Reporteradmiringly remarking, “It’s actually genius that they threw that in there.”
When asked for comment, Warner Bros. declined to comment. to confirm or deny whether the raunchy French pun was intentional or accidental. But they made no secret of the fact that they were delighted with the social media buzz the poster has generated, in France and abroad.
“The speculation around the Barbie marketing campaign demonstrates that there is a high level of public awareness and excitement surrounding the imminent release of our film in France,” said a Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson. “We can’t wait for audiences around the world to see the film next month.”