The minimalist billboard gets our attention: black capital letters against a stark white background. But the words spelled out by those letters are cryptic: SWORE RAY. Swore Ray? Ray swore? What did he say? And what do his profanities have to do with the advertiser, the Monte Carlo resort and casino in Las Vegas?
Then it clicks: soirée! The Monte Carlo is proving just how "unpretentiously luxurious" it is — as the tagline puts it — by translating an already familiar French word into phonetic English. French for les imbeciles Americains, you might say.
And there's more. The Monte Carlo campaign, which launched in June, includes print ads featuring murky, soft-core-porn-styled photographs with superimposed phonemes. BONE APP A TEAT, says one, cheekily. Another "translates" from English: DUH BOTCH OR EE. (See all the ads here.)
Monte Carlo isn't the first company to invent an ad vocabulary, but for better or worse, it's on a crowded bandwagon. The earliest forays into "Brandish" came during the lemon-lime-soda wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when 7Up coined "Uncola" to describe itself. Competitor Sprite dreamed up a new hybrid fruit, the "lymon." As a result, a generation of kids grew up searching in vain for lymon orchards. (The lymon returned in 2006 in ads that intoned, "Welcome to subLYMONal advertising.")
At least once in advertising history, a major brand invented a disease and gave it a name. Halitosis, meaning "bad breath," entered the English lexicon in the 1920s, when Listerine introduced the word to scare customers into buying mouthwash. The word seemed plausible because of its Latinate roots: halitus, meaning breath, and -osis, meaning condition. The fictional condition was so persuasive that in seven years, according to the account in Freakonomics, Listerine's revenues rose from $115,000 to $8 million.
But it's really in the last decade or so that creative directors have made neologisms and language play a competitive sport. One of the first brands to experiment with phonetics was the California winery Clos du Bois, which in 1996 launched an outdoor ad campaign that helped monolingual Americans with a pronunciation guide to the winery's name: CLO DEW BWAH. ("See voo play" was the follow-up.)
In 2003, the American film director David Lynch, known for his hip, surrealist vision, created "Do You Speak Micra?" a European TV campaign for Nissan's tiny Micra model. A pair of giant blue lips uttered words from the Micra language, all of them awkward portmanteaus: spafe (spontaneous and safe), modtro (modern and retro), simpology (simple and technology).
The coinages were wittier and more successful in a 2006 Snickers campaign that introduced the "Snacklish" language, whose vocabuary included hungerectomy (removal of hunger), peanutopolis (city of peanuts), and substantialicious (substantial plus delicious). Three years on, the Snacklish lexicon continues to grow. Recent additions include snaxi, chewconomy (a reference to the recession), and nougetaboutit (a blend of nougat, a Snickers ingredient, and the classic New Yorker-ism fuhgetaboutit. One bus ad reads "File for Workman's CHOMPENSATION."
When Comcast launched its Triple Play bundle (TV, phone, and internet) in 2007, it introduced a set of made-up words — again, all portmanteaus — to describe the otherwise ineffable wonderfulness of it all. A set of flash cards tested your knowledge of karaocasting, snurfing, and the unfortunate splurjobbing.
And while the Monte Carlo casino was turning French into basic English, McDonald's injected a little ooh-la-la into its menu with its McCafé "menu initiative." To drive home the correct pronunciation for clueless Yanks, the fast-food chain's ads urge customers to "McCafé Your Day" (a little rhyme never hurts). And it invented some acute-accented words to reinforce the theme: When you McCafé your day, a cubicle becomes a cubiclé, a commute becomes a commuté. As Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil observed, "That seems somewhat lamé." (Read what Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer had to say about the linguistic issues at stake in this Word Routes column.)
Whether labored like splurjobbing and spafe or memorable like lymon, brand neologisms appear to be with us for a while. Besides giving copywriters a chance to show off and have some fun, the invented words can make consumers feel like participants in a game — or spies who can crack a code.
Or they can be simply silly. You get a vote: Are invented ad vocabularies effective or affected? Which made-up words have impressed you — or distressed you? Which brands seem ripe for an infusion of neologisms ... and what would those new words be?