Businesses today — with their fuzzy, friendly names — all seem to want to cozy up to you. But there are plenty of reasons to keep your distance.
In 1963, when I was in second grade, I entered the classroom one day with my fellow students following our usual rousing session of morning calisthenics on the playground and saw that a strange word had been scrawled on the wall. Miss Hartzell, our teacher, walked toward it, trailed by all of us, our eyes wide. Who would dare write on a wall?
“It looks like … ” I was a good reader. I hesitated, sounding the unfamiliar word out: S-H-I-T. “Shit?”
As one, my classmates turned and stared at me in horror.
That may have been the moment I decided to become a writer.
Never mind the chances of any child in the year 2020 failing to encounter the word “shit” by age seven. I don’t recall now which of my peers — April? Lisa? Jill? — took pity and eventually shared the strange word’s meaning with me. What I do remember, clearly, is how those brief, curt four letters had the power to put an entire classroom of children in their thrall.
That was the year that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy — generally considered the most eloquent of modern presidents. It was also the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which a poll of 137 academics voted the greatest American speech of all time. My dad was a history teacher; we watched a lot of speechifying on the newfangled television in our living room when I was a kid. I grew up steeped in the measured, eloquent, thoughtfully prepared words of great speakers, as opposed to my granddaughter, who’s growing up in the era of “The Bible means a lot to me, but I don’t want to get into specifics, okay?” From the pulpit, from our presidents, from the writing on the wall, the message rang out loud and clear: Words are power.
We all knew that, back then. In the 1960s, the biggest companies in America had solid, substantial names meant to convey that they were in it for the long haul: International Business Machines, General Motors, U.S. Steel. Or they were named for their founders: DuPont, Ford Motor, Boeing, Procter & Gamble. Men (it was always men) named their companies after themselves out of pride in what they’d made. Having “Chrysler” or “Dodge” written in glistening chrome on every car that rolled off the assembly line was both a boast and a promise: I built this, and I stand behind it. My name is my bond.
It seems to have been a while since we named anything bigger than a sandwich shop after ourselves. That sort of self-aggrandizement isn’t fashionable anymore; we no longer trust people who brag. Or perhaps we’re just nervous about how quickly social media vultures can strip the meat from one’s bones over a misstep and leave a name — well, forever ignominious. The trend now is for names that signify the complete opposite of, say, Mutual of Omaha (because what could be more solid than Omaha?): Twitter, PayPal, Uber, Google, Snapchat. The same is true of media: Instead of the New York Times and Washington Post and Time and Life and National Geographic, we have HelloGiggles and Bustle and Vice. Have you ever thought about what “BuzzFeed” really signifies? It isn’t substance, that’s for sure. (Which for some reason brings to mind a tweet I saw recently: “Dude, what kind of man would name his company Microsoft?”)
What the new breed of company names has in common is a breezy offhandedness, a blithe come-hither wink: Hey, I’m cool! Don’t you want to be my friend? In a world that’s grown increasingly lonesome and ever more reliant on online communication, that’s a mighty lure. Who doesn’t need a cheery companion with whom to share celebrity gossip and cancel-culture faulty thinkers into oblivion? Besides, the articles in those old-school publications are so long and complicated. There aren’t enough pictures of Charli D’Amelio, if you ask me!
And you know, that’s fine, so long as everyone truly is being friendly. But considering that with your clicks, you’re feeding the voracious maw of data tracking, not to mention supporting entities like Facebook that refuse to monitor posts for veracity while they promote misinformation, that friendship may not be the chill, easygoing attachment you think it is. And now COVID-19 has further empowered our tech giants, particularly in light of the federal government’s bungling. As Franklin Foer noted in the Atlantic over the summer:
In the midst of the pandemic, Google Meet has become a delivery mechanism for school. AmazonFresh has made it possible to shop for groceries without braving the supermarket. The government has flailed in its response to the pandemic, and Big Tech has presented itself as a beneficent friend, willing to lend a competent hand.
Friends! We’re friends with all the companies with the silly names, and you know what friends are for: fun. But it’s worth remembering that nothing was more fun than Gawker — right up until it disintegrated in a maelstrom of vitriol.
I saw a TV commercial the other day for an insurance company called Hippo. I honestly can’t fathom why anyone would want to buy insurance from a company with that name. What’s it supposed to signify — heft? The Dance of the Hours from Fantasia? Blue Nile water-spirit cults? But it seems zoological business names are having a moment; there’s Zebra.com, which offers “business solutions,” not to mention TheZebra.com, which also deals in insurance, and TaskRabbit and SurveyMonkey and Peacock and Ant Financial and Gazelle. And then there’s the Aflac duck and the GEICO gecko and Liberty Mutual’s emu … what could be less threatening or more beguiling than a cute little critter?
If not an animal, though, how about some vittles? Don’t forget about Apple and Purple Carrot and Caviar and ChowNow and Grubhub and the food/animal hybrid Chowhound. It took a “brand-strategy firm” to come up with the name Quibi — purportedly short for “quick bites” — for Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s streaming-video start-up. (According to the Wall Street Journal, the company’s now foundering.) Katzenberg’s preferred choice, nixed by Whitman, was “Omakase,” the term for fancy sushi that’s selected by a chef. Which — what the hell? Why not go with that?
Some of the goofier monikers out there are attached to brands that have been so successful, their names have now morphed into verbs: We Google one another, Photoshop our pictures and FaceTime with Mom. These new companies have become identified with a certain workplace ethos, one overflowing with camaraderie and beers on tap and sliding boards and huddle rooms. “Open offices” are now the norm, with no doors or even cubicles to provide privacy. (If their designers had as many doctors’ appointments to schedule as people my age, they’d put up more walls.) And many young people were working from home even before the pandemic, enabling them to curate their collections of houseplants and pets. It also enabled their employers not to have to pay for office space or telephones or pens or coffee machines, even as it allowed those workers to pick up some extra money driving for Uber or delivering groceries for Instacart on the side.
But there’s been an undercurrent of unease in the zeitgeist lately when it comes to Big Tech, driven by the implosion of WeWork, revelations about Uber’s toxic workplace culture, complaints of racism at (among others) Facebook and Google. Not to mention all that dustup over Twitter’s extreme reluctance to censor President Trump’s incendiary tweets. That cute little birdie! Who would ever suppose it didn’t have a spine?
There’s also the fact that for friends, these companies are so demanding. You no sooner buy their product or use their service than you’re bombarded with requests: How’d you find your experience with us? Won’t you take this survey? Write a Yelp review? How many stars do you give us? Click here to share your rating on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram! In other words, devote your time and energy to providing us with free advertising. Do we sound needy? You really should want to do this, seeing as we’re such good friends!
Granted, it was easier to know your enemies back in the day. Our corporate giants weren’t repped by dancing bears, or dressed up as our good buddies Jan and Flo and Lily, or showing us wistful conversations between turtles. They were more honest, frankly. They never used to pretend to want anything but your money. Maybe it all began to turn with that Coke commercial about teaching the world to sing, with its multicultural mob climbing a hill in Italy to achieve world peace. Oh, it was the real thing all right, if what you were hoping for was tooth decay and heart disease and diabetes spread ’round the globe.
But that commercial’s astounding success — an ad industry insider once described it as “a total breathtaking appropriation … of love and tolerance” by Big Soda — paved the way for our current cozy relationships with giant corporations, who maneuvered hard to get around what used to be a general innate suspicion of their aims. These were the guys who were making the bombs that were being dropped in Vietnam and the arms we were sending to the contras. America, alas, has a blindingly brief attention span, as our current leader’s ability to slough off scandal shows. And the internet has only further attenuated it. Now comes the coronavirus, and businesses are suddenly babbling about sharing our pain and helping shoulder our burden. All together now: “Uncertain times!”
Even the woke folk, it turns out, have been running a con, with hipster news source Vice getting pegged for sexual harassment, while chicly progressive Refinery29 and tony women’s refuge the Wing and ultra-cool Man Repeller have seen revolts over racism. Not to mention boneheaded Facebook demonstrating companies’ ability to control content on its new workplace chat space by suggesting “unionize” as a term that can be blocked. Uh-oh! Who’s your friend now?
Speaking of which, the real problem with businesses’ seduction by cuteness lies in their erosion of workers’ rights. We’re such a happy, friendly family — why should we be expected to pay you a living wage? Offer you health insurance, or paid time off? No less a Big Tech eminence than Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit — that community-building website with some 330 million users — has spoken out lately about a “hustle culture” that glorifies the working grind. (Ohanian recently stepped down from the board of Reddit, which is under increasing heat to take steps to combat rampant racism and hate speech on its channels.) Employers that keep us racing to drop off new underwear and meal kits and partygoers don’t leave much time for reflection on the value and meaning of work.
The real problem with businesses’ seduction by cuteness lies in their erosion of workers’ rights. We’re such a happy, friendly family — why should we pay you a living wage, or offer paid time off?
And that’s not coincidental. Trivial names trivialize both labor and those who perform it. Chris Gilliard recently wrote in Fast Company about how YouTube and DoorDash and Reddit and Lyft have all been busily expressing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protests even as they “do little to change their policies, hiring practices, or ultimately their business models, no matter how harmful to Black people these may be.” NextDoor, the advertising-supported hyperlocal social media platform, and Amazon’s Ring doorbell cameras have both been singled out for exacerbating neighborhood tensions and racist anxieties. Clearview, Microsoft and Amazon are all involved in the development of facial recognition software. (Amazon’s is called ReKognition — cute!) Zoom, that now-essential remote group-meeting marvel — an American company — shut down the account of a group of U.S.-based Chinese human rights advocates … at the request of the Chinese government. All of which just shows how important it is to judge these giants not by their words — or their silly names — but by their deeds.
There’s one set of words that’s been steadily leeching power lately — the dirty ones. The famously foul mouths of Donald Trump and his minions have upended our attitude toward such speech, if only through relentless overexposure. Covering a president who liberally litters his language with terms like “fuck,” “pussy” and “shithole” has forced such straitlaced publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post to reexamine their norms. On a single day last October, WaPo published the formerly skirted word “bullshit” at least five times. Evangelicals don’t seem to mind their president’s pottymouth, but let me write “Chrissake” in an article and their wrath instantly engulfs me. It’s an interesting distinction, as traced by Columbia University linguistics professor (and native Philadelphian) John McWhorter: “What genuinely registers as profane to most Americans is now slurs rather than references to bodily matters such as sex.”
The same dynamic applies to the silly names, which may have sounded weird when we first practiced saying them but now roll right off our tongues. Unfortunately, what they’ve engendered remains: a largely at-will workforce battered by recession and layoffs, a gig economy marked by demoralization and low wages, millions of newly unemployed workers, fierce resistance to unionization — and a lot of lip service about peace and love.
Published as “Friends, No Benefits” in the September 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.