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"Hero" Worship: The All-Purpose Admiring Appellation

"We don't need another hero," sang Tina Turner in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Sorry, Tina — from the evidence, we need "hero" more than ever. The word has become a noun-of-all-trades, a succinct four-letter label for people and things we admire.

In May, when the actress Angelina Jolie published an essay about her preventive double mastectomy, she was hailed as "a feminist hero." (Yes, "hero" is now considered gender-neutral, except when referring to the principal character of a fictional work.) The U.S. Postal Service sells greeting cards for "everyday heroes" — firefighters, police officers, and members of the military services, as well as teachers, parents, and, well, letter carriers.

More and more, the news media grant hero status to prominent people, regardless of verifiable valor. Earlier this year, for example, I heard an announcer for a San Francisco public-radio station referring to the jazz musician Dave Brubeck as "the late Bay Area hero." In a 2007 post on his Editor's Desk blog, journalism professor Andy Bechtel cited a front-page promo headlined "Heroes Pass Away in Movies, TV, Football." Ingmar Bergman a hero? "Let's be careful not to confuse achievement with heroism," Bechtel advised.

But what really opened my eyes to "hero" was the U.S. trademark database. I'd been vaguely aware of a few brands with "hero" in their names, such as the music game Guitar Hero (introduced in 2005). I was surprised, however, to learn that there were 1,569 live "Hero" or "Heroes" trademarks and more than 2,000 dead (abandoned) ones. Even more surprising: more than half of all those marks, live and dead, were registered after 2001. Of the live trademarks, 610 — nearly 39 percent — had been registered since January 2011.

Of course, there had been "Hero" brand names before then. The word itself comes to us from the ancient Greek, where it meant "demigod"; in English, it's meant "a mortal who exhibits great bravery" since the 1660s, and it's taken on more-prosaic associations ever since. Short and evocative, "hero" is an appealing metaphor for a brand to align itself with. The oldest Hero trademark in the U.S., registered in 1911 to a New Jersey company called Markt and Hammacher and abandoned six decades later, is for Hero saws. The oldest live Hero trademark is for Hero cigarettes: Registered to Philip Morris & Co. in 1952, the mark includes a drawing of ships, a sailor, and a life preserver. (Cigarettes as life preservers may strike us as oxymoronic today, but things were different in 1952.)

It's the more-recent Hero brands that indicate how the word's scope has been broadened and diluted. Yes, some of the trademarks are for superhero costumes, and a few are registered to the Swiss food company Hero, whose name is unrelated to heroism: It was coined from the surnames of two early partners, Henckell and Roth. But the majority of the names tell a different story.

One subset of contemporary "hero" brands invokes people whose jobs require wearing a uniform and wielding life-threatening or life-saving equipment. Thus, all past and present members of the armed forces, regardless of their actual assignments, are now "heroes." The Housing Authority of Salt Lake City is seeking trademark protection for Housing Our Heroes, a program to assist homeless military veterans. Helping Heroes Home, in Massachusetts, pays for cell phones for veterans returning from active duty. The Hero Triathlon, in Nantucket, raises money for groups associated with veterans; Heroes Walk Among Us, in New Mexico, provides support services for disabled veterans.

Nonmilitary public servants who wear uniforms also qualify for the "hero" treatment — although because "public servant" has fallen from favor, terms like "first responder" and "emergency workers" are preferred. ("First responder," which covers all emergency personnel, was coined in 1978 by an M.D. and ambulance driver.) In ads for Quantum, a new battery from Duracell, the actor Jeff Bridges tells us that "The next storm is out there, but so are the heroes." Homes for Heroes, a national program affiliated with real-estate lenders, offers discounts on closing costs and other home-purchase fees: "Our Heroes [sic] include military personnel, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others who make our communities a better place to live," the website says.

You don't have to dig very deep to explain this expanded sense of "hero." It took off after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when first responders were thrust into the eye of the catastrophe; many did, in fact, perform heroic deeds, while others carried out more mundane tasks. The ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq added military personnel to the "hero" list. "You are either with us or against us," President George W. Bush proclaimed in November 2001 — a good guy or a bad guy, a hero or a villain. The lack of a military draft made it even more tempting for civilians at home to place members of the all-volunteer armed forces on a pedestal. Each subsequent disaster, from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, has produced its own crop of media-anointed heroes.

The vast majority of Hero trademarks, however, use the word in a less exalted sense to mean "strong, reliable helper" — a product or person who comes to the rescue in a routine, non-life-threatening situation. A representative sampling, all registered this year: Paleo Hero, food bars for people following the "paleo" diet, Hair Hero shampoo and styling products, Hotel Hero software for hotels, Treadmill Heroes exercise-equipment repair, Credit Heroes credit-scoring services, and Glass Hero cleaning supplies. There are HomeHero flashlights and first-aid kits, Yolk Hero eggbeaters, a Swing Hero to improve your golf game, a Rooftop Hero to fix your roof, and Hot Water Heroes to install your water heater.

Another resource, the technology site Crunchbase, lists more than 40 "hero" company and product names, many no doubt piggybacking on the success of Guitar Hero: Cloud Hero, Taxi Hero, Road Hero, Tattoo Hero, Course Hero, Delivery Hero, Contractor Hero, and The Vacation Hero.

Still another set of Hero brands are in the "you-deserve-it" camp, a theme I wrote about in a previous column. With these brands and slogans, you are the hero — both in the "principal character of a narrative" sense and the "notable achievement" sense. Guitar Hero belongs to this category, as do Hero Martial Arts Supplies and Modern Hero men's clothing. Courage energy drinks are formulated "For the Hero Inside." Buy a Tailgate Hero grill or cooler and be the star of your next football party; be a Green Hero and "fight global warming with a game." These heroes are comfortably at home in the world of you-centric marketing, where, as I wrote in 2010, you are important, powerful, and in control — at least in your fantasies.

Of course, fantasy has always been associated with the concept of hero.  Joseph Campbell called the hero's journey the "monomyth," the fundamental story on which all important myths are built. From Homer's epics to the Star Wars films, from King Arthur to the Apollo astronauts, heroes have always filled our deep need to see valor triumph over adversity. Today, instead of slaying dragons, our heroes pilot drones and rescue storm-stranded motorists — or simply make sure the roof doesn't cave in. And if you buy the right stuff, you too can have The Right Stuff, becoming a hero without risking your life or even working up a sweat.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 23rd 2013, 2:59 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
I agree with the rationale some have put forward that says that many people make unrecognized contributions to heroic acts through mundane activities & should be recognized as heroes as well. However, I agree with the thrust of this article, as I perceive it, that this rationale has been taken much too far!
Monday September 23rd 2013, 10:05 AM
Comment by: John P.
Very thoughtful. Your narrative adroitly sits as the corner piece of the greater puzzle.

"heroes have always filled our deep need to see valor triumph over adversity".

Perhaps the depth of our need has never or will ever have been so great.


- Amen Brother
Monday September 23rd 2013, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Glenn D. (Bryan, TX)
Nancy, Enjoyed your article; well researched and written! I recall a scene in the original, "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brenner,Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and others. A small group of Mexican boys were saying to Charles Bronson how they wanted to be like them and not like their dads. Bronson quickly scolded them saying how their fathers worked the field every day and were responsible, real men whereas the "seven" were not. I think he even turn one over his knee. It's true, those who go about taking care of their families in a responsible way, teaching, and being a good role model often do not get the raves - this side of heaven.

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