Editorial: What’s In a Company Name? Humor, Shock Value and a Federal Case

Friday, January 11, 2019

What’s that new French-Vietnamese restaurant called, the one scheduled to open in Keene, N.H., in March? News reports indicate that it’s Pho Keene Great.

And that clothing line, the one that tried to get its trademark registered but was denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, what’s it called? It’s FUCT, of course.

Got your attention?

That’s the idea. Commercial interests have long wielded every weapon available to them in the battle to attract consumers and, with hope, their money. Wooden signs became neon signs became flashing (and dangerously distracting) digital billboards along some highways. With the rise of consumer culture, companies took to whatever media outlets were available to tout their brands — slogans in print advertising (“99 and 44/100% Pure: It Floats”), and catchy jingles on radio and TV (the original earworms). At the turn of the millennium, Coca-Cola reportedly explored the possibility of using a huge laser to project its logo on the surface of the moon.

Then the internet begat a new breed of corporate identity.

While at first following the traditional approach of serious-sounding business names that described the operation — America Online and CompuServe, for example — internet companies soon opted for “a kind of nerd-like obscurantism,” pulling names out of what the textbook Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method describes as a “cauldron of sophomoric origins.” And so we have Google and Facebook (and they, it turns out, have us).

But except for a few giants, simply sophomoric soon proved insufficient in the fickle and cluttered digital media environment. Companies needed shock value to break through: the high-fiber cereal called Holy Crap, for example, or HVLS Fan Co., the high-volume, low-speed fan company in Kentucky that saw sales grow dramatically after changing its name, based on customer input, to Big Ass Fans.

As Eli Altman, author of Don’t Call It That and creative director at the branding firm A Hundred Monkeys, told The New York Times, “with today’s seven-second site visits and 2 percent click-through rates, I think it’s significantly more risky to have a boring name than to have a risqué one.” That’s why Duluth Trading Co. has a complete line of “Ballroom” jeans for men, and why “clickbait” website ads are often built on the soft-core objectification of women.

Which brings us to Pho Keene Great and FUCT.

As the Keene Sentinel reported, the restaurant is now in a debate with city officials about its name, in large part because the eatery plans to open in a publicly owned space next to City Hall. City officials say they’re concerned about potentially offensive or profane signage on a city-owned building, and the restaurant’s owner, who has for the moment complied with a request to take down the “coming soon” sign, says the name is intended to be “fun and lighthearted” and restrictions on its use could be considered discriminatory and a First Amendment issue.

And FUCT? The Washington Postreported that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if brand names the federal government finds vulgar or lewd can be denied trademark protection. An appeals court in 2017 ruled that fashion designer Erik Brunetti could get a trademark on his FUCT brand, striking down a 100-year-old prohibition on “scandalous” and “immoral” trademarks as a First Amendment violation, and the Department of Justice wants the Supreme Court to reverse that decision. But the Post noted that in another 2017 case, this one involving an Asian-American rock group called The Slants, the court ruled unanimously that another part of the law — the one banning trademarks that were considered “disparaging” — violated the First Amendment.

Some will blame all this on the coarsening of American culture, and there’s no doubt some of that. T-shirts and bumper stickers that would have sparked outrage a generation ago are now barely remarked upon.

But it’s also the case that companies are more desperate than ever to stand out in a fractured and intensely competitive marketplace. And with consumer spending accounting for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, the stakes are very high — even if the language is getting low.