Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Illiterate USA?

Man, what is the deal with this country?

Am back in the old country, having another bout of culture shock. It's manifested a little differently each time I return. In 1990, it was "clueless ATM queue etiquette." In 1991, it was "shampoo aisle, conditioner aisle." In 1992, it was "you mean to tell me you're having a recession?" In 1993, it was "why are the streets so empty?" And so on. But this year, it's "can't you people read?"

I really really want to apologize (not apologise, which I would use to address my Canadian & UK pals) to all of my Stateside friends, those of you who can read and spell. But you ARE living in a country that is starting to have a big problem.

I was just in an Old Navy store in Tucson's Park Place Mall. The guy in the checkout line next to mine had on a sweatshirt that blared the prefaded words: Team Baseball. What is that supposed to mean? Guy obviously isn't a baseball fan, or else he'd have on the shirt the name of an actual team. At best, he's a nice guy who doesn't want to take sides. At worst, he can't even read, doesn't care about grammar and meaning, labels on his own body. And what is this Old Navy enterprise, anyway? What does Old Navy mean? What bizarre marketing decision was this? Chimps with darts and a wall covered with words that might be associated with a clothing bargain? I can see the selection: Navy Army Surplus Old Overstock Overage Remainder Sale et cetera. Please, please, do not inform me that this Old Navy name was focus grouped. Please do not tell me that a group of consumers had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi for the words Old and Navy.

In our nation's capital, I was walking from the Metro station to my son's apartment and passed a fast food joint. Called Booeymonger. What, pray tell, is a Booey, and why would I want to eat it? It was an anagram of Booger money. A food outlet. It's downright creepy to see names that don't make sense. I mean, they are English words (Navy, monger, old, baseball, team) or at the very least follow one or two English spelling rules (booey). But this is every bit as bad as Chinese tee shirts I first encountered with mirth and incredulity in 1989.

When I first came to Hong Kong, I saw on tee shirts, jackets, and handbags such gems as "It's the Strange Active Dog" and "Dramatic Establishment Since 1957" and "Fight an Enemy" and "Funky Milky Girls." Ye-es, these are English, but does it mean anything? I held a fascination for these bizarre sayings and would try to memorize them, but because they make no sense, they defy memory. I had to start writing them down in my diary. I started stalking the funniest ones, missing tube stops and lunch appointments as I followed and scribbled these in my notebooks. I should blog a full list of these.

In the same way that Madison Avenue brainiacs of the 1960's went for the annoyance button to get our attention onto brands ("Mother, please; I'd rather do it myself" and "but not for boys" et al), marketing men just want us to give our attention to brand names. And here I am, blogging about Old Navy and Booeymonger, giving them free press coverage.

But, can you dig this? It's not China, and I'm reading these same ridiculous messages on contemporary fashions here in the largest English speaking country in the world.

1 comment:

Evan said...

I think the emergence of the prominence of non-sensical word combinations and made-up words stems from two things.

One is the emergence of how cool it is to have words that are 'funky' and 'Japanese-like'. Japanese pop culture (that has produced bands such as Orange Range, Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi, and Luna Sea)

The second factor is the limited vocabulary of people that speak a language that has many more words than those that are actually used. Many word combinations would be unsuitable for a brand name because they are common phrases that wouldn't work as brands (like "flip-flops" or "parking lot") and so to stand out and not get your name-brand lost you resort to coming up with something catchy (whether or not it makes sense is secondary). Among many consumers, name brands that once had an original meaning relapse and mean nothing. For example, someone over the age of 30 would know that the term Banana Republic actually meant something. To many key consumers in the 21-35 range, 'Banana Republic' is as madlib-tastic as Old Navy and is cool because it sounds catchy not because it has meaning. Booeymonger takes this to an extreme because it has resorted to using a made up word (or perhaps an anagram) to create a brand identity. Of course, maybe booeymonger can afford to be so extreme because it only has 4 or 5 locations and is not a huge chain. Then again, perhaps that has no bearing on it at all- Look at Hagen Daaz.

As far as the largest English-speaking country goes, I think India may have us beat in the next 10 years, if they haven't already.