When a new international poster for Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie hit the internet last week, it went viral, apparently for all the wrong reasons.
The French version of the poster looks innocuous enough. It features star Margot Robbie as the pink-clad doll-come-to-life and Ryan Gosling as her blond sidekick Ken. But the French tagline: “Elle peut tout faire. Lui, c’est juste Ken” — meaning “She can do everything. He’s just Ken” — has an NSFW double-entendre meaning in French slang, where ken is another word for “fuck.” So the tagline becomes: “She knows how to do everything. He just knows how to fuck.”
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Read like this, Gerwig’s PG-13 comedy satire becomes an R-rated raunchy sex comedy.
The internet, being the internet, lapped this up. Several French Twitter users tweeted photos of the posters with comments on the “accidental” or “unfortunate” translation. Naturally, it went viral, with some of the original tweets getting viewed millions of times.
Just why this is so hilarious for French speakers takes some explaining. In the so-called “verlan” slang, which first became popular in the 1980s, French words are given a new meaning by switching the order in which the syllables are pronounced. Tomber (to fall) becomes be-ton (concrete). In this case, forniquer or its shortened version, niquer (to fuck) becomes queni or keni, which over time has been shortened to just ken.
Then, in the Barbie tagline, “Lui, c’est juste Ken” changes its meaning because c’est (he is) and sait (he knows how) are homophones. “He is just Ken” becomes “He just knows how to fuck.”
In France, the Barbie poster drew little shock and indignation — it takes more than a raunchy pun to startle La Grande Nation — and, initially, most French speakers assumed the double entendre was the result of a bad, or a too-literal translation. But the pun was so obvious — ken as slang for “fuck” is common parlance for anyone under 30 in France — many began to suspect the poster’s NSFW message was a deliberate act of guerrilla marketing.
A closer look at the tagline seems to confirm this. The original, English Barbie tagline is: “Barbie is everything. He’s just Ken.” But the French translation of the first line isn’t “Barbie est tout” (“Barbie is everything”), the literal translation, but rather “[Barbie] peut tout faire” (“Barbie can do anything”), a line that feeds nicely into the slang-y Ken line with the dirty connotations.
“It’s definitely deliberate; there’s no way a French speaker wouldn’t have noticed the dirty pun,” a French marketing executive from a competing studio tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting admiringly, “It’s sort of genius, really, that they slipped that in.”
Asked for comment, Warner Bros. refused to confirm or deny whether the raunchy French pun was deliberate or accidental. But they made no secret of their delight in the social media buzz the poster has generated, in France and abroad.
“The speculation around the Barbie marketing campaign shows that there is a high level of awareness and major excitement from the public surrounding the upcoming 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 upon its release next month.”
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