Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

McDonald's Puts the Accent on Advertising

McDonald's has launched an ambitious marketing campaign for its new coffee line, McCafé. In one commercial currently saturating American airwaves, viewers are advised that you can "McCafé your day" by enlivening your daily grind. The ad extends the acute accent mark at the end of "McCafé" to various other words: a "commute" becomes a "commuté," a "cubicle" becomes a "cubiclé," and so forth. Will this wordplay work with American consumers, or will the exotic diacritics fall on deaf ears?

Here is the commercial in question:

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Dan Neil thinks the McCafé campaign "has a bit of a language problem":

"McCafé" is hard to say — having three stressed syllables — and American audiences have almost no experience with diacritical marks, so the acute accent mark on the final é is going to leave some fast-fooders bewildered.

I wonder how many Americans would really be "bewildered" by an acute accent mark. In any case, the "commuté" commercial takes on any diacritical confusion head-on, by grafting the accent onto everyday English words. The suggestion seems to be that your prosaic life can be improved by the simple addition of an iced mocha coffee, just as a jaunty little line over a mild-mannered "e" can add a dash of linguistic élan.

Some viewers may be reminded of other pseudo-foreignized words in American parlance. In particular, it brings to mind the jokey pronunciation of Target, the chain of retail stores, as "Tar-ZHAY." According to Laura Rowley's 2003 history of the company, On Target, this faux French rendering of "Target" actually dates all the way back to 1962, the year that the first Target store opened. Despite the irony of pronouncing the name of a discount retailer as if it were an upscale boutique, the company has in fact embraced "Tar-ZHAY," working the Frenchified word into its own ad campaigns.

Going back even further, in 1940 W.C. Fields played a character named Egbert Souse in the movie The Bank Dick. Souse, of course, is a synonym for drunkard, but the Fields character insists there is an accent over the "e." "It's pronounced Sous-AY!" he would say. "Accent grave over the e!" (Actually, it's not an accent grave but an accent aigu, an error that further underscores the character's buffoonish airs.) And fans of the 1984 cult classic film Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai may recall the character John Bigboote, who similarly insisted, "It's 'Big-boo-TAY!' Tay! Tay! Tay!" (For more pop-cultural examples, see "It Is Pronounced Tro-PAY" on the Television Tropes & Idioms website.)

McDonald's may actually be using tongue-in-cheek pseudo-French pronunciations like "commuté" and "cubiclé" as a way of poking fun at the whole idea of dressing up coffee in the froufrou Starbucks style. (Compare the Dunkin' Donuts "Fritalian" commercial.) In this way the commercials are signaling that McDonald's doesn't take this whole coffee thing too seriously. The trick is to do this without poking fun at McCafé drinkers themselves. No one wants to be treated as a self-important heir to Egbert Sousé — or the garbageman once played by Jonathan Winters in Hefty trash bag commercials who pompously pronounced garbage as "gar-BAZH." But if Target found hidden cachet as "Tar-ZHAY," who's to say McCafé can't make a similar play? Anything is possiblé.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 21st 2009, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Lenny (Stow, MA)
If we are talking about it, McDonald's has already won!

It is a great idea and Americans will have fun with this wordple'(ay).
Thursday May 21st 2009, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Furrokh I. (Morganville, NJ)
Brings to mind Mrs. Bucket (pronounced Boo-KAY) of the Britcom "Keeping Up Appearances".
Thursday May 21st 2009, 10:33 AM
Comment by: cepowell (DALLAS, TX)
Ben, It could be the caffeine I'm feeling, but actually, I believe it's the rich flavor of your analysis that is so exciting. It even has a movie list! Wow.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Valerie B. (Dorchester, MA)
Of course, where I live (Boston) we call the local Target "Targhetto" ! (It all depends on the clientele, I suppose) Funny how that's never worked its way into an ad campaign.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
In the days of the Colbert Report, where both T's are fake French silent, more and more Americans are exposed to "exotic diacritics" and alternate pronunciations. Maybe half now know that "espresso" is not "expresso." I'm a former French major so I find it funny and kinda cute. I haven't gone to a McDonald's in over 20 years but this ad works, especially for those who do. My husband thinks their regular coffee is good and his only-English-speaking comment was "it's a play on latte, right?" So I think it works on all levels. Amuse, educate, entice.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Absolutely cute ad. (I'm a champion of McDonald's "senior coffee." Sixty-five cents. And its always fresh.)

BTW, Dan Neil's comment about Americans not understanding diacritical marks was so ignorant that it reflects badly on the Times editing standards. Doesn't anybody in-house read these things?
Thursday May 21st 2009, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Manuela F. (Washington, DC)
Don, the media tend to think that average Americans are stupid dolts. As for McDonald's coffee, I'm a bit blase (blah-say) about it.
Thursday May 21st 2009, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Just a little typo in the fourth paragraph: "accute accent mark"
..the first I've seen in your excellent articles.

[Thanks. Now fixed! --BZ]
Thursday May 21st 2009, 7:22 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I had to laugh at that blah-say!

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