Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Gain's "Gooder" Galls Grammar Grouches

A television commercial for the laundry detergent Gain is getting under the skin of the grammatically minded. The commercial shows a man getting dressed and smelling his newly laundered shirt, as the announcer says, "Bill's mornings have never been gooder thanks to something amazing we've added to Gain." That one little word, gooder, has set off a storm of protests — which may be exactly what Procter & Gamble, the makers of Gain, are looking for.

Earlier this week, when a reader complained to New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott about the Gain commercial, Elliott checked in with Procter & Gamble:

"The Gain brand (and the ones who love it) stands for laughing at the little things, enjoying life and knowing it is O.K. be a little silly," Sarah Pasquinucci, a spokeswoman at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, writes in an e-mail.
"In that playful spirit, we launched the 'good'er morning' campaign to show that the scent of Gain with FreshLock isn't just good — it is good'er," she adds. ...
Procter & Gamble and [ad agency Leo] Burnett know that "good'er" is not really a word, Ms. Pasquinucci says, "hence the apostrophe."
"But in the Gain mind-set, talking about the scent in a different way makes it just a little more fun," she adds.
"This campaign was tested with hundreds of consumers," Ms. Pasquinucci says, "and proved to embrace the lightheartedness of the brand while capturing the essence of the long-lasting scent that gives our Gainiacs such joy."

Despite all of this consumer testing (who are these "Gainiacs," anyway?), reactions to the commercial's use of gooder have been overwhelmingly negative. Spelling it good'er, as it appears in print and online campaigns, doesn't help. If the insertion of the apostrophe is supposed to represent a sly wink that this isn't "really a word," the extra punctuation has failed to assuage many people. Here's a sampling of gripes:

Have you seen this current marketing campaign for Gain Detergent where it uses a non-word, specifically 'gooder'? I am really upset about it because it goes against our education system. They are literally promoting the decay of our youth by putting out, and intentionally yet, a commercial that is improper grammar. (Orry's Orations)

I have to say that the use of the word 'gooder' in the new gain ad is down right annoying. It is hard enough to get kids to speak and use English correctly without them hearing such non-words on TV. I am not asking for perfect grammer [sic] but it would be nice if you at least stuck to words that are an actual part of the English language. (Measured Up)

I hate to be a grammar Nazi, but when somebody uses the pseudo-word "gooder" it makes me question the literacy of said person. The fact that a company would allow such a word into a commercial for the world to see is just asking to be ridiculed. (Writinghood)

Dear Gain, "Gooder" is not a word. Sincerely, Grammar (Facebook group)

Now, clearly Gain's ad agency knew what they were doing when they settled on gooder as the word that would "embrace the lightheartedness of the brand." Elliott, in his response to the Times reader, said this is just "another example of an advertising campaign that deliberately makes a grammatical mistake to draw attention," pointing to the notorious slogan for Winston cigarettes: "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Nancy Friedman recounted the outrage that Winston's tagline generated in a Candlepower column last year, but observed that "the uproar only increased public awareness of the new brand."

Apple, of course, had its "think different" campaign, and then a few years ago introduced the iPod Touch as "the funnest iPod ever." Not to be outdone, T-Mobile used intentionally outrageous words like funnerer and smarterer in an ad for their G1 Android phone. There's something about playful comparatives and superlatives that seems to appeal to advertisers. Old Spice took this to ridiculous extremes last year with a commercial that used the super-superlative, freshershist.

Which brings us back to gooder. Better and best have been the conventional comparative and superlative forms of good since Old English (along with worse and worst for bad). It's one of those quirks of English word formation that we all manage to learn early on. Young children often use words like gooder and badder until they master the adjectives' irregular paradigms, just as they might say "three sheeps" and "I winned" before learning to say "three sheep" and "I won."

Beyond children's speech, gooder survives in regional, non-standard usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English cites several examples, mostly from the South, going back to a line from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' 1938 novel The Yearling, set in rural Florida: "Foxes love corn gooder 'n I do." On Google Books, you can find gooder 'n (for gooder than) back to 1865 in a story printed in The Ladies' Repository: "And so she is; she's gooder 'n any body." The homey, alliterative expression "gooder 'n grits" is still popular in many parts of the South.

This Southern colloquial tradition is likely what inspired the makers of a 2002 campaign ad for Congressman Bob Barr (R-Georgia). Due to redistricting, Barr faced a primary challenge from a fellow Republican, John Linder. An old rancher in the commercial says, "Linder is good, too. But Barr's just gooder."

The commercial probably did Barr no favors — he lost to Linder in the primary by a 2-to-1 margin. Will Gain have anything to gain from its own use of gooder? We'll see. In the meantime, I'll be reading the new book from the brilliant minds behind the FakeAPStylebook Twitter feed, Write More Good. (Don't worry — it's a spoof.)

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Ben Zimmer 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.

Should advertising adhere to accepted rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar?
The Thinkers
Think-y slogans, from IBM's "Think" to AT&T's "Rethink Possible."
Adding "-er" or "-est" to "fun" can elicit very strong reactions.