Imagine you're naming a new brand — an alcoholic beverage, say. You know the standard marketing dogma: a brand name should promise romance, adventure, well-being, financial success, sex appeal. What are the odds that you'd ignore that advice and instead choose a name that says … death?
Believe it or not, the odds are very good. Death — heretofore the ultimate taboo in marketing — has become trendy.
Think I'm crazy? Let's go shopping.
At your local liquor store, you can find bottles of Black Death Vodka, Death's Door gin, Death & Taxes beer, and red wines from Australia named Dead Letter Office and Dead Arm. There's an upscale New York City boîte called Death + Company, and a popular San Francisco Bay Area restaurant called The Dead Fish.
A cosmetics website sells Dead Sexy No. 6 perfume. A business called Dead Sexy Nails, in Southern California, will give you a manicure (to die for, presumably). You can buy sportswear from companies called Board 2 Death, Death Grip, and Death Nail. (The last name is an eggcorn of "death knell.")
If you're in Key West, Florida, you can stop by Baby's Coffee for a bag of Death by Coffee, a proprietary blend of beans. If you're in Boston and have a baby grand to transport, you can call Death Wish Piano Movers (motto: "We're So Good, It's Scary!"). Pretty soon, if the trademark record is to be trusted, we'll be seeing a line of toy cars from Mattel called Dead Fast.
There's a special subset of death-invoking hot-sauce names, dominated by a company called Blair's Sauces that makes Sweet Death, Original Death, Mega Death, Ultra Death, Beyond Death, and Pure Death. A prize for the best pun and most clever packaging, however, goes to CaJohn's Fiery Foods in Westerville, Ohio, which makes Lethal Ingestion.
The virtual world has also embraced the underworld. An app called Write Or Die promises to kill writer's block. ("Putting the 'prod' in productivity," the tagline promises.) And a new social network, DeadSocial, allows users to leave "secret and scheduled messages to be published to your social networks AFTER YOU DIE."
What accounts for this morbid torrent? And when did death lose its penalty in the marketplace?
Here's one plausible answer to the first question: Marketing is all about getting attention, and "death" is nothing if not an attention-getter. "Death" in a brand name tells customers that you're bold, edgy, and unafraid to cross marketing's final frontier. A product named Black Death or Ultra Death is not for the average or the timid; Death Wish Piano Movers says "This is a dangerous business — hire a professional!" These brands borrow their dark appeal — and their bravado — from band names like Megadeth (formed in 1983) and Death Cab for Cutie (1997). (Death Cab for Cutie goes back even further: it was the title of a song performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the Beatles' 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour — which in turn was named for an invented pulp-fiction crime magazine mentioned in a 1957 book about British culture.)
Some "death" brands put a lively spin on their names. Death's Door is the name of a geographic feature in Wisconsin: the passageway between Washington Island and the Door Peninsula. The "dead" in "Dead Letter Office" is a metaphor for "undeliverable"; the label on the bottle tells an elegiac story about postal clerks. The Dead Fish restaurant has a downright charming name-origin tale: When the Italian-born chef was a child, he'd ask his nonna — "a little Italian grandma with a big heart" — what kind of fish she was making. Nonna never could remember. "She would shrug her shoulders. IT'S A DEAD FISH!" Cue the laughter.
With some of the names — Dead Sexy, Dead Fast, DeadSocial — "dead" is an intensifier meaning "absolute" or "very." The usage came into English around 1660: In Britain, expressions such as "dead jolly" are common, and on both sides of the Atlantic we say "dead earnest," "dead certain," "dead reckoning," and "dead ringer" without implying a literal fatal event. DeadSocial — which is based in London — takes advantage of the "very" meaning while also communicating the "social after death" function.
When was the death-name trend born? It's hard to trace, but Death by Coffee may provide a clue.
In 1981, a Los Angeles restaurateur, Jeffrey Fields, opened a restaurant called Les Anges that featured "la Mort au Chocolat" on the dessert menu. The French name translates to "Death by Chocolate"; the dish contained "multiple layers of chocolate genoise, mousse, ganache, and meringue," topped with chocolate crème anglaise, according to a Wikipedia entry. (Wikipedia also mentions earlier "Death by Chocolate" desserts in the Cleveland area, possibly inspired by a fictional dessert by the same name on local children's television show, Barnaby & Friends. I haven't been able to confirm the Cleveland connection.) Death by Chocolate continues to show up on dessert menus and is a popular recipe on many cooking websites; it's also the title of an influential cookbook by Marcel Desaulniers and the name of a rock band based, fittingly enough, in that chocolate-lover's paradise, Switzerland. Death by Coffee is an obvious descendant, as are Death by Peanut Butter (a trademark for desserts) and Death by Architecture (a listing of global architecture competitions).
Thirty years of enjoying Death by Chocolate have not completely inured Americans to death's chill; after all, many people prefer euphemisms like "passed away" when they talk about actual demise. But familiarity with death brands seems to have bred not contempt but fondness. It's a true death-defying act.