March 18, 2013

The Power of Names

(Image by Gareth Hughes)

"In the beginning was the Word."

These are the opening words of the Gospel of St John, and it is far from the only piece of writing that acknowledges the great power of words, in particular their power to create whole worlds. As just one example, think of the biblical echo in Shelley's Hellas:

Let there be Light, said Liberty,
And, like sunrise from the sea,
Athens arose.

Apart from poets, priests and politicans, it is also the admen who have a clear understanding of the power of words, and use them for the creation of entire universes in the minds of consumers, all in the name of profit and - that most ambivalent of words - "growth".

Admen know that the proper naming of products and their classification has a significant effect on companies' bottom line. Take a quick look around, you'll see it everywhere: "Tide" laundry detergent; "Rembrandt" artist supplies; "Seventh Generation" household products; "Green"; "Natural" - and so on.

It ticks me off that the admen have started to treat numbers as if they were just another set of words, so that a "Size 30" pair of jeans by no means implies that they fit a 30" waist. The only thing it implies is that they want you to like them for suggesting that you still have a 30" waist, even if you've left that behind many years ago.

It does work, and it does sell.

Americans' infatuation with large cars was implanted in our minds by decades of relentless car advertising of the bigger-is-better type. So if the US government is really serious about increasing the fuel efficiency of the nation's fleet, it would make a good start by re-vamping the car classification scheme, meaning the way cars are named.

As an example: a Ford Focus falls in the "Compact Car" category. Just hearing that is enough to make you feel claustrophobic: it might remind you of trash compactors, or the tiny case of facial powder that fits so nicely in your purse.

In Europe, the same Ford Focus falls in the "C-segment" of "medium cars". It is commonly called a "small family car". The parsing is open to interpretation, so I choose to take that as meaning "small-family" rather than "small car": indeed my family of four fits very nicely in an Ford Focus, with room to spare for the cello.

The "Subcompact Car" category is good for suggesting claustrophobia in a dark basement, even though a car like the Ford Fiesta, which falls in this category, would still comfortably fit a family of four (albeit without the cello). The European name for this class is the upbeat and feisty-sounding "Supermini".

If you were presented with two cars, one a "subcompact", the other a "supermini": which would you rather drive?

Ford Subcompact vs. Ford Supermini (both Fiesta)

Incidentally, that European classification scheme puts the smallest cars, including citycars like the Smart ForTwo, in the "A-segment", just like their carbon emissions classification puts cars with the highest fuel efficiency in the "A" class.

In contrast, cars that are called "full-size" in the US, such as the Ford Taurus, in Europe are classed with the "E-segment" executive cars. The very term "executive" suggestively but firmly puts it out of the middle of the range. A middle-class family doesn't need that class car to be respectable.

And vehicles like the Mercedes S or Cadillac XTS, which are labeled "luxury cars" are stuck in the "F-segment". Indeed, many of these also have "F" class fuel efficiency. While you need to be financially successful to be able to afford the taxes associated with owning these cars, carbon emission wise you're consigned to the "F" category.

That sends a message.

Similarly, the naming of SUVs suggests youthful and physical activity, even if by and large they are used by moms to convey themselves to the mall, and their children (who don't drive) to basketball practice. In Europe they are sidelined with the label "Off-road" vehicle. That says it all: if you don't go off road, you don't need it.

If you also remember that gas-guzzling SUVs get hit hard by the un-subtle European carbon tax at every turn, you can see why SUVs have never been very popular in Europe.



  1. This is very thoughtful. I would definitely prefer a super-mini over a sub-compact, and an "A" model car over an "E".
    Whenever anyone suggests I replace my 1999 Saturn SL1, I tell them its a "Paidfor"; both the dollar cost and the environmental impact of construction have already been paid for, which makes it superior to almost anything else on the market.

    1. I like that "Paidfor" classification very much!


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