Ad and marketing creatives

We Speak Brandish. Do You?

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?

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

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.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday August 10th 2009, 3:39 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I first saw the Monte Carlo's ad campaign a month or two ago with a big white sign and black letters that read "OP YULE ANT." It was worth a chuckle. But I wonder about wordplay ads like this and the ones you mentioned. How much of the intended audience enjoys wordplay and will really feel like participants in the game? And who is the intended audience? Most generation X and Y-ers I know don't appreciate language fun as much as I do.
Monday August 10th 2009, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Janet B. (New York, NY)
I will admit to being amused at the "Snacklish" ads I have seen for Snickers on buses, pedicabs, taxis and in the subway, they are funny but inventive. I have not seen any of the Monte Carlo ads yet so it is a little harder to judge. Do you really think most people will bother to try to get it? If they are not puzzlers or word people it will just be over their heads. The attention span is shrinking, with people looking at their cell phones and texting more and paying attention to what is around them less. There are so many ads on the pages on the internet, do we really see any of them or do we just skip over them as we are looking for the content we are interested in? Is "subLymonal" advertising really going to reach any of us?

(I looked at that Burger King ad and it is awful, I agree with the prior comment.)
Monday August 10th 2009, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I think this kind of wordplay is inventive and amusing. Those are two good things for any communication.
Monday August 10th 2009, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
I like this kind of wordplay, but then I'm a fan of the plasticity of language. I know many who aren't.
Monday August 10th 2009, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Fascinated to learn the origin of "halitosis". It took me in. As to the rest, they all sound pretty lamo to a purist and a French speaker like me. I really wonder who they are aimed at. My all time favorite, from an American VW ad some years ago, was "Fahrtvergnugen" (umlaut on the 'u'). Don't know if the word was coined for the ad or just being introduced to Americans, but it is made up of two traditional German words: "drive" and "joy". As our VW was backfiring a lot at the time, we got a good laugh out of that word.
Monday August 10th 2009, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Janet L. (Detroit, MI)
True word play is only for those who "get it." With the dumbing down of society, only those who indulge in the grandiloquence of vocabulary will find these ads to be chucklepausealicious!
Monday August 10th 2009, 8:14 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Gedaly: According to a report in Brandweek, the Monte Carlo ad campaign targets 25-to-60-year-old males and females with household incomes of greater than $75,000. I'm skeptical, though: the imagery seems aimed at young men exclusively.

@ClarenceW and @JanetB: The Burger King ad language doesn't qualify as invented, but as long as you bring it up, BK has been pushing the limits of "edgy" lately. This ad for the "Super Seven Incher" is so crude it hardly qualifies as double entendre: (That link goes to the most discreetly worded article I could find!)
Monday August 10th 2009, 9:18 PM
Comment by: James K. (Lewiston, ID)
I worked at BK as a teenager, it appears their social etiquette is as crapolustious as it's entree selection.
Tuesday August 11th 2009, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Puritans are most of the time against going off the track, but languages, words, or anything for that matter tend to evolve by going away from what is considered as "normal". I would like to see these as some of the causes for the imminent change.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 11:29 AM
Comment by: Amy M. (Davidson, NC)
Call them neologisms, but back in my 20s they were called 'sniglets' and were even more creative. Anyone remember those?
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
"SNIGLETS"! Thank you, Amy M., for that word. I still think the new stuff can't compare with the old, old "Shut da door" (for the French "Je t'adore", "I love you") or Kipling's "a stute fish".
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Pittsburgh, PA)
Excellent post Nancy (as usual!).

I see genius in this area everyday...just look at the creativity displayed by vanity license plates. It is a rare day when I don't get a smile from license plate created words that have special meaning for the driver!
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 9:13 AM
Comment by: martyn A. (JERSEY United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Personally I find North African food very "Moorish"

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

McDonald's grafts acute accents onto everyday words in its McCafé ad campaign.
Naming No-No's
Words to avoid when creating a name for a product or company.
The stories behind eight brand names.