The inner circle of brand doyens at Lexicon (I almost wrote Lexipro, then almost quipped about Lexi-con) is exploring car names that could become impactful brands in a twenty-first century green economy. In “Famous Names: Does it Matter What a Product is Called?” (The New Yorker, October 3, 2011), the writer John Colapinto listens in:
“Well, like, you’re talking about a car brand—Pledge.”
“Right!” Alger said. “Exactly! Something like that. I mean, take the Civic, for example.”
“O.K.—perfect example,” Placek said. “Even better.”
“A sense of responsibility that people have to the environment,” Alger said.
“…Civic is a great name,” he said—those vigorous “c”s and “v”s. “See how fast that is? And yet totally unexpected at the time.”
A good brand name, David Placek, the CEO of Lexipro makes clear, must evoke positive emotions (BlackBerry is the opening example), ease of expression and pleasant sounds (but say “Dasani”), strong associations with desired strengths, qualities, or virtues (Pentium, PowerBook, Civic), as well as—and this is crucial—a frisson of surprise (Swiffer, Twitter). The mark of a good brand is its shimmering aesthetic quality. Like poems, memorable brand names, Colapinto learns, “work by compressing into a single euphonious word an array of specific, resonant meanings and associations.”
See how fast that is? The top item returned from my search queries for “civic” and “history of civic” is, not unsurprisingly, the Honda Civic. Needless to say, it was not without some archaeological excavation that I managed to dig up websites and articles whose content was directly related to civic-mindedness, the city-state, citizenship, and civic duty. Which led me to ask a slightly different question from Colapinto’s: in the game of branding, does it matter that a Burger is not a citoyen; that private affairs are distinct from civic participation; that the Civic driver is not a settler but a perambulator; or that the educated consumer is, shall we say, not pledging his support on behalf of the polis or the republic but expressing an individual preference for an object that skillfully bundles utility with efficiency?
I think it does and this for many reasons.
In his short contribution to the recently launched Journal of Modern Wisdom entitled “Connotation,” the satirist Theodor Dalrymple argues that, among public policy experts, connotation (the frames, brands, and cluster of terms associated with some social program) has usurped denotation (the social, economic, and political realities to which these terms should refer) as the object of primary concern. The examples he gives, no doubt cherry-picked for his particular political ends, are nonetheless illustrative of his critical approach: “social housing” and “charity shops,” he claims, both hide the fact that social programs tend to humiliate their recipients, often leaving them on the dole. Thus, he urges us to “look more closely at the reality” behind the packaging because reality is precisely “that which cannot be mocked.”
George Lakoff represents the opposite approach to corporate and political obfuscation. Because any policy evokes a particular worldview, the opponent is better off if, instead of criticizing the proposal in its own terms she learns the art of “reframing” it in her own. Hence, she does not reject “tax relief”; instead, she speaks on behalf, let’s say, of a “common good fee.” Nor is she against “pro-life”; she is for “pro-resiliency.” Or some such.
It strikes me that Dalrymple and Lakoff embody two forms of what Hegel would term “one-sidedness.” Dalrymple is surely correct that words carry histories and embed traditions deep within them. If this were not the case, then “civic” would not have the resonance it does: it sounds good because it evokes a good tradition. However, attending principally or exclusively to denotation is neither a sufficient nor an effective strategy against the world of branding, hustling, and political spin. Then too Lakoff is right to insist that words exist within conceptual repertoires and are imbued with values that tend to move us in one direction rather than another. In the “tax relief” schema, I do feel inclined to regard taxes as inflicting suffering upon me and mine, and I do feel moved to seek forms of present relief and future protection.
So words have resonance as well as history. The problem is not that this is true—since it so self-evidently is—but that the two have been torn asunder so that we feel compelled to choose (if that’s the word) between sounding good (Lakoff) or being critical (Dalrymple). It just so happens that brand experts have taken the first path while public intellectuals have commandeered the second. Our public project should be to re-harmonize one with the other.
I mean to make two modest proposals in what could be called “public exercises in thinking together.” The first will be to carry through a Lakoffian-Dalrymplean thought experiment. The second will be, after this comic task has been completed, to ask after what is missing.
The thought experiment first. How might we comically re-brand the Honda Civic? What are your thoughts about “Peak Oil on Wheels”? Or how about Gretchen Rubin’s happiness empire, elegantly branded The Happiness Project? I’m fond of “Super-cuteness; or, the Self-Help Darling Our Cloying Generation Deserves.” (I concede that this is more a witty headline than the imagist or Dadaist poem of Placek’s dreams.)
That was Lakoff with a surprising sense of humor. Now Dalrymple with a touch of modesty. The concept of “civic” would have to be traced back through Republican Rome to the direct democracy of ancient Greece in order to illustrate how the well-being of the political whole was the highest end of the life of citizens. If civic meant anything, it meant citizens gathering together in the service of the common good. A similar educational project, but this one guided by conceptual analysis, would have to be pursued in the case of the Happiness Project: a disentangling of concepts such as peace of mind, joy, chipperness, feeling good right now, life fulfillment, and the rest, followed by an honest examination of our desire for happiness of one kind or another.
The tragic consequence of this public exercise would be that contemporary culture is lacking in the civic virtues of honesty, sincerity, and accuracy, virtues without which denotation and connotation cannot be reconciled and harmonized. Only imagine, for a moment, how the marketplace, the family, the neighborhood, and the state would have to look were we to speak honestly in our dealings, sincerely about our offerings, and accurately about the things we make and the work we do. This final exercise in imagining the other side of what is missing in our public life would surely make branding look ridiculously outré.