Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tuscany, by any other Name

I have long been disturbed and maddened by advertisers' use of nearly meaningless words and catch-phrases to strike people's fancies. Any meaning these phrases originally had has been lost, and replaced by the advertisers' intended meaning (or sometimes not much meaning at all). I've written before on the phrase "Now More Than Ever," and that one had a lot of angles to tackle. Today's awful word is a proper noun (or an adjective, depending on whether they're using it in copy or as a product name), and though it may not have the potentially devastating powers of manipulation as the aforementioned phrase (NMTE!), it is quite, quite stupid. TUSCANY.

I have two other beefs that I'll lump together with this one. Tuscany is on my shit list, but there are a couple of other examples of naming-manipulation that don't rub me quite so roughly in the wrong direction. They just irk. Paint colors -- specifically Ralph Lauren's are on my list of ridiculousness. (Though I'm sure there are worse paint names out there, I'm familiar with Ralph's. As a loyal customer, I can make fun of them.) Finally, I have to return to my feeble complaints about Anthropologie, this time about their product names. Feeble my complaints are, because Anthro's name games, more than any others, work like heck on me.

Tuscan chicken. Tastes like a dish from Tuscany. Reminds you of the Tuscan hills. Do people even know where Tuscany is? It's become the poster child for everything Italian, even though it's only one specific region not even home to the biggest cities people think of when they think "Italy." Most of the Italian food we eat is southern Italian, with the red sauces and all. Or Sicilian even, like the meats and some pizza styles. I'm no Italian foodie, so I know Toscana for its cultural contributions more than its culinary ones. Florence is there, you know, where Michelangelo's David is? The marketing doesn't remind us of that sort of thing. Advertisers working for fast food joints, housepaint brands, supermarkets, etc. have led us to associate "Tuscany" with peppers, chicken (they're actually bigger on beef there), cheese, beige things, things with pictures of grapes on them and a faux crackle finish...cypress trees, maybe. Hills. Something like California, but better (in consumer's minds) because it's Italy. I'm sure it's a lovely place, but the attention it's getting is directed at all the wrong things, and being used to promote some very American products. Mostly awful food.

Fortunately no cars have been Tuscany's namesake. I think the Hyundai Tucson beat carmakers to it, and fears of dyslexic drivers confusing the names (they probably don't know where Tucson is either) may have GM holding off on putting the "Chevy Tuscan" out just yet (they're the worst at car names). I did see a suburbanite with the license plate "Tuscan 1" on her champagne colored SUV. What the hell does that even MEAN!? I bet she has a beige kitchen with faux crackle finish walls and a wallpaper border of purple viney grapes. And lots of chicken in the freezer. And those friggin' bottles with oil and peppers and shit in them that just sit there on the counter looking "Tucsan."

Ralph is next. Ralph Lauren paint is great. I try to buy it exclusively for my tiny old house. It has a cream base instead of a white base, which makes it look warmer, more natural, muted, a little dirty, maybe even a little Tuscan. Goes with my ancient wood floors and the cobwebs on the crown molding, and covers the mystery spots on my walls that are made out of some pressed material that predates drywall. Behr paint, on the other hand, has a white base and I hate it. I used the Behr in my bathroom because I got some free paint. I thought the bathroom might be one room that would benefit from not having paint that looks pre-aged and pre-dirtied, but I was wrong. (See photo. "My God what have I done...white base!") So there, I love Ralph but I can't stand his paint names.

In the series that I usually buy from -- the "Vintage Masters" series -- the colors are great and really come from a master's palette (a term we arties actually use). Some of the names follow the series theme and are spot on -- "Vermeer Blue" is just like the blue on the head wrap of the girl with the pearl earring, "Impressionist" is just the color of a Monet sky, "Medieval Purple" matches the faded, once royal purples on the tapestries.

Some are typical paint names, you know, something about a meadow or a lilac, and those are okay. Others leave too much up to the imagination or just miss the mark, in both the realms of the concrete and the abstract. What color is "Basalt"? Well it's not a faint whisper of light blue like Ralph thinks it is. Ralph failed geology I guess. And most people probably would have no guess what "Basalt" is supposed to look like anyway. Next up, "Countess" -- what color is a countess? She's grey. And the "Duchess of Windsor" is pink, apparently. And what color is a "Hotel Room"? They're all grey. My living room color is called "Composed." Unless you've seen my living room, would you have any idea what color that is? It's a beautiful muted gold that changes colors in the light, accepts sun-dappling with grace, and resists scuffing from toy hammers, Hot Wheels cars, and little shoes. I love it. But "Composed" sounds like a blue to me, or a deep grey. It deserves better. I would have called it "Buckskin" or something. Or even "Sun Dapple." Though I guess my living room does compose me pretty well. "Temptation" is another interesting and abstract one. It's a light delicate pink, not deep pink or green or some other passionate color. Maybe delicate pink was "temptation" to a Victorian dandy who looked for that color in the face of his betrothed (since he couldn't see any more of her).

So "Composed." Me in my yellow living room.

Finally Ralph just has some "what were you thinking" color names. "Essex Cream"? -- I can hear Beavis and Butthead snorting at that one. "Pink Lips" (another delicate barely-there pink, maybe the china lips of someone who's had massive blood loss) is another doosy. And the made up person names! I can accept the paint namers trying to associate well known figures from history with regal looking colors (Edwardian Burgundy, Victorian Lace, Lady Elizabeth White...) but who the hell is "Larrington"? It's like you're supposed to make up some high falutin' story for the guy and make your guests think your dining room is painted like the fictitious Lord Larrington's salon. Maybe he was some 18th century fop who liked swollen purple colors on his painted floors. Ralph should make up the story for you and print it on the back of the paint chip. Then you can bring home a little pile of paint chip novellas and decide which narrative best suits your mud room.

Last for today I will complain a little about Anthropologie, but like I said, they know what they're doing with names. The 2010 spring catalog doesn't even use traditional names for the articles of clothing being described. Not only does the one-shoulder, drop-dead gorgeous piece that's caught your eye have a whimsical write-up, but it's not even referred to as a swimsuit -- it's a maillot! A gleaming pewter maillot! How can a girl resist? I can't blame them for fancying up the name. Their swimwear passes as evening wear. This one's even being worn as a shirt by this distracted Demeter over there. Other items I liked at first look but got pulled in by the name: Inked Paradise Dress (perfect -- I must have it), Drifting By Dress (shown on a blonde, probably wouldn't work on a brownie like me), Warm Season Romper (that sounds a little off, but real fun), Archeologist Button-Up (jeez!). I think that last one is the shirt you buy if you don't have an archeologist boyfriend to give you his. Then you can wear it around and play hard-to-get at the next big dig. "So... are you seeing anyone?" "Not really. I just sleep with archeologists and steal their shirts."

As I write these names out I can see some of them are not as whimsical when not paired with the photos, and some of them are just as devoid of meaning as "Tuscany." However, they are poetic. They lend themselves to story-weaving, like Ralph's made up lords and ladies. The sound of Anthro's names is good. They sound like they look.

Perhaps when you have a product that is good, waxing poetic about it is not a bad idea. Especially in a smaller target market like romantic clothing for 20 - 30 year old women, or paint for people who like old-looking houses. But using imagistic or emotionally loaded language to sell something crappy to everyone who walks by is just not cool. Tuscany, I'm boycotting your products (that have nothing to do with you). Anthropologie, I know what you're doing to me, but I'd like to place an order...


  1. Sir Larrington was a fop who had a Tuscan villa and ate lots of chicken and drove a Tucson.

  2. I knew it!

    ...But was he an archeologist?

  3. Ahahaha Robyn this is awesome. I totally appreciate the sentiment: I have similar feelings about the use of "French-ness" to sell diet books. (Originally, I was going to write in my post about the south of France, and then couldn't get past the fact that French Women Don't Get Fat, which is spurious to say the least).

    I think the difference between our posts is audience. QC Blog is supposed to help potential clients understand what narrative marketing is/does, and your blog is... well, awesome and aimed at critically-thinking academics!

    I will be interested to see your reaction to my next QC post, in which I will try and use Fredric Jameson to unpack some recent narrative marketing campaigns...oy yoy yoy... : P

  4. I'll definitely check out your next post! I love applying the ideas of old lit critics to commercials and dress catalogs and what not.

    Excellent work on that QC article! I have also been working in marketing throughout school, often experiencing guilt and conflict because of the things I have to write for my job(s) vs. the things I actually want to write. Does that happen to you? Marketing has been a good ride though, and I'm glad I found a way to work with words to get me through school! I'll be a TA this fall, and I'm hoping to never have a "real" job again.


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