Myth: Commercialism Ruins Baby Names

Avis-rent-a-carNow that January is here, maybe you are glad the holiday season and the commercialism that accompanies it is over!

For a culture steeped in commercialism, dissing the practice seems fashionable in America. Americans have a love/hate relationship with commercialism.

This love/hate relationship has carried over into baby names. We say we hate naming baby after a commercial product, but make exceptions if the name is cool enough or has other associations that cancel out the commercial one.

Since most parents try to consider every possible downside when picking a name, anything that can remotely cause teasing often comes into question. This can lead to much anxiety, and eliminate so many terrific names.

Many terrific names have been claimed by products. These names are picked by marketing gurus so they are bound to be memorable. And most commercial products have been around for a relatively short time when human history is viewed from a long-range perspective. Yet people act as if commercialism ruins names for good.

I believe this is a myth. It’s no secret I feel Amos (#860) has graduated from being just a package of cookies. Oscar too, has shed its lunch meat image and looks like it’s headed for the top 150 (at #162).

Wendy, created by author J.M. Barrie for Peter Pan, and a hot baby name in the 1960s/70s, managed to make the top 30 over forty years ago. It’s hard to say if the hamburger chain hurt the name since the name’s rise predated the fast-food restaurant.

The name peaked at #29 in 1969, the same year Wendy’s (the hamburger chain) was founded. After 1969 the name did decline, but it was not a dramatic decline, but rather the subtle decline of a name that simply ran its course—hamburgers or no hamburgers. Wendy stayed in the top 50 until 1978, and then began its rapid decline, leaving the top 100 in 1982. In 2011 Wendy ranked at #676.

Did the hamburger hurt the name?

I think the hamburger only slightly tarnished the name, but didn’t do any long-term damage. Wendy will come back in style eventually, but not anytime soon. And Wendy won’t come back in style soon because it is simply a “mom name”  (or for the first wave of Wendy’s a “mom to teenagers name” or a “young grandmother name”) now.  In other words, it hasn’t reached “great-grandmother name” status, when names have been out of style long enough to be considered revival candidates.

Maybe the commercial associations with these product names—names that would otherwise fit current styles—aren’t as strong as we think:

Allegra is a big one. Based on anecdotal evidence, American moms love this name and curse the pharmaceutical company that used it for an allergy medicine. In Australia, where the same product exists under a different name, Allegra is a stylish choice. While Allegra is outside the U.S. top 1000, there were 75 American families who didn’t care about the allergy medicine and named their daughters Allegra. This is slightly up from 63 in 2006 and 51 in 2001.

Avis. The first thought that comes to mind for many parents may be a rental car. This is too bad since this name dates back to the Normans, and is also associated with the Latin word for bird. For those who cannot get past the rental car connection, there is the similar Mavis, which also shares the clunky old-fashioned style.

Elio is one of my personal favorites. This Italian male name fits right in with Leo (#167), Milo (#361), Nico (#494) and Theo (#865). This lively name consists of 75% vowels, including the popular O. Yet the image of a frozen pizza package may deter many expectant parents. The fact the pizza brand uses a slightly different spelling (Ellio’s) probably doesn’t make much difference.

Zima. The bad news is this clear alcoholic beverage, launched twenty years ago as “Zomething Different” than beer, doesn’t get much respect. The good news is the alcoholic beverage hasn’t been on the U.S. market since 2008. Maybe time will erase images of 90s yupsters haphazardly grilling “free-range” burgers on some random city rooftop. And in time Zima, which is also Czech or Polish for “winter” and sports the energetic Z, could become a perfect choice for a winter baby.

Perhaps this myth isn’t completely debunked. While impossible to prove, maybe if not for the fast food restaurant, Wendy would have become a top 10 name in the 70s, along with Melissa and Heather. Maybe sometimes, if the association is strong, commercialism does ruin a baby name. But I feel the damage is temporary. As years pass, and the product is taken off the market, people forget about the commercial product, especially if they have a friend with the name.

If you happen to like some of these names, I wouldn’t let their commercial associations deter you from using them for your baby. Perhaps there are many others who like these names and are just waiting for some gutsy person to use one of them.

Readers: Which of these names do you feel can easily shed their commercial image? (Multiple votes allowed, unless “none” is selected.)


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