Baby branding

by Rob Horning

22 June 2007


When I was a teenager, one of the main reasons I liked to write short stories was that I liked to invent names for the characters. I remember being fascinated by this passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp when the main character, a writer, spends afternoons reading the phone book looking for rich, evocative names. I thought, Wow, that’s what I want my adult life to be like—I didn’t realize that the passage was about anomie and the sterility of writer’s block.

Back then, I had a John Hughesian taste for names like Sloane and Chase and Ferris and Blaine; these seemed the names of privileged 1980s teendom. To my mind, if you knew people with names like that, you were running with a pretty fast set and what you were up to was almost inherently glamorous. Only later did those names seem like so much pretentious twaddle, as juvenile as the films themselves. (They seem to foreshadow the spate of suburbanized names like Travis, Cody, Kyle, Reed, etc., names that for me conjure images of bratty entitlement and Dennis-the-Menace levels of yell-talking.) But is their awfulness a matter of fashion trends changing, or is there something about the combination of syllables and sounds that make names like Claire Standish seem so implausible and absurd, so obviously made up by someone who is not a parent but a writer?

What started me thinking about this was this article from today’s WSJ about the nascent baby-naming industry. Apparently people have allowed themselves to be convinced that naming is so complicated, with so many intricate prosodical and astrological, and numerological considerations to master, that a special class of experts should be consulted to navigate them through the process.

Why anyone would pay someone to come up with appropriate names for their baby is beyond me, honestly, and the article didn’t really convince me that these people were anything other than idiotic. But the article did raise an interesting point about naming consciousness ands the rise of branding’s importance in our culture.

Growing brand consciousness among consumers has made parents more aware of how names can shape perceptions. The result: a child’s name has become an emblem of individual taste more than a reflection of family traditions or cultural values. “We live in a marketing-oriented society,” says Bruce Lansky, a former advertising executive and author of eight books on baby names, including “100,000 + Baby Names.” “People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you’re giving your child a head start.”

I guess that explains why Sweden had forbid parents from naming their children Ikea. It would be a blatant theft of brand equity.

Names in the past signified kinship ties in social groups that were generally small enough for that data to mean something. The explosion of cities necessitates new rationales, perhaps, for naming, and the procedures of mass marketing supply one. Not to get all Burkean here, but the fact that our culture’s saturation with brands would inspire parents to turn away from tradition, reject continuity with a lost era of community and familial obligation, and embrace a synthetic individualist credo in naming seems a pretty compelling and disturbing point, proof that marketing indeed reshapes not merely our opinions toward a specific product but toward the way we comprehend the principles along which we reproduce society generally. Baby-making for the bourgeois management class begins to resemble a project-management task, with the baby being conceived and named along the same lines a company might launch a new product, only after carefully collecting the data to assure that a niche exists for it and that its name tests well with the appropriate demographic.

Marketing imperatives have so penetrated ideologically that they seem like commonsense considerations in something as time-honored and intimate as naming one’s offspring. Naming one’s baby to give it iconic selling power almost seems sensible. Hence the pathetic quandary of people like the following, and their desperate turn to a kind of consultancy that has never before in the history of human society had reason to exist:

Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn’t want their son to be “one of five Ashtons in the class,” says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a “cool” name that would help his son stand out. “An unusual name gets people’s attention when you’re searching for a job or you’re one in a field of many,” he says.

How sad is it that these parents don’t think their child will be cool inherently, that they feel it needs a snappy branding to become worthy and capable of thriving in the world? And don’t these clowns who sell lists of names feel ashamed for taking advantage of people in a moment of heightened insecurity? Actually, ignore that question. Of course they don’t. Our economy has built entire sectors on that business model.

I can’t really understand the trend toward wacky, “unique” names—it’s as if these parents believe the child’s actions won’t suffice to make them unique; that instead they need to be named Trafalgar or Wooster. Weird names seem like a curse to a child, who will forever stand out for a quality that he had nothing to do with. His parents’ self-consciousness will hang like an albatross around his neck, making sure he is always seems like he is trying to hard (like Hughes when he conjured up Sloane Peterson), always is at one remove from himself, evaluating what superficial impression he is making. Having a jazzy name means like you are selling yourself before you even have a self to be aware of. It means going through life always dogged by unearned attention. So I’m comforted by this:

Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of “The Baby Name Report Card,” has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. “Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” he says.

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