It was the late 1990s and I wanted a cheeseburger. Settling instead on a reasonable facsimile thereof, I walked into my local McDonald’s. The place was swamped – like David Hasselhoff-sighting swamped – and my prospects for scoring a meal before low blood sugar levels laid me flat on the dirty, french-fry-strewn floor looked bad.
As if to taunt me, there was plenty of food within reach – pristine, untouched hamburgers and cheeseburgers and McNuggets and full orders of fries. They were piled up in the trashcans, most with nary a bite missing.
It was the era of the Beanie Baby.
Being a surly Gen X type, I harbored the requisite disgust for this collecting craze. Yet I had to admit that I liked the name Beanie Baby. The words rolled off my tongue just so. They were literally fun to say. I would never in a million years join the herd of lemming-like Beanie Baby buyers. But my very contempt provided me with opportunities to say “Beanie Babies,” often accessorized with a carefully selected expletives.
In 1999, Beanie Baby manufacturer Ty Inc. raked in $1.25 billion from sales of these little plush toys, according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times article. Many factors contributed to this success. The company’s strategy of manufactured scarcity – the lifeblood of the collectibles market – was a major factor. Its alliance with McDonald’s helped, too, causing crazed collectors to buy food they didn't want just to score the free toy that came with it.
But, as a word person, I find it impossible to believe that the company would have had the same results had it named them “Small and Pliable Plush Animals” or “Miniature Stuffed Toys” or “Pieces of Colorful Fabric Sewn Around Stuffing and Plastic Pellets in Shapes Resembling Mammals and Sea Creatures.” Even something actually decent like “Tiny Teddy and Pals” or “Li’l Squeezes” probably couldn’t have borne the craze for these surprisingly bland little toys.
That’s my impression, anyway.
The reason I have Beanie Babies on the brain has to do with another fast food chain. Burger purveyor Jack in the Box has rolled out a line of smoothies (fun word, huh? Smoothies. Smooooothies). Commercials keep telling me they’re available in “mango, strawberry banana, and Orange Sunrise.”
Mango I get. Strawberry banana I get. Orange I get. But what’s this “Sunrise” business?
It could mean that the smoothie is not exactly orange but really a combination of orange and other citrus flavors. Or it could mean it contains a shot of tequila. I don’t know because, as a 21st-century American consumer, my expectations of words have been reduced to almost nothing. I know perfectly well that the words hurled at me every day may or may not have any meaning at all. Sometimes, marketers’ words are fired at us in the most literal sense possible, “Buy now!” Other times they’re thrown in just for sound -- the hypnotic and pleasant sensation created by combinations like "beanie" and "babies," the improved rhythm achieved by adding the word "sunrise" to the line of copy, "Mango, strawberry banana, and orange."
Either way, these words come from businesspeople more interested in impressions than meaning -- people counting on our not paying attention. And, either way, the effect is the same: Marketers drain the meaning and impact out of words.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t really know. I just worry about a system that banks on our brains being asleep. And I feel bad for the deflated little words, too. Under different circumstances, “sunrise” could convey a vivid, beautiful, meaningful image. But in my world, “sunrise” has more to do with TV commercials in which a sweaty jogger dangles his mangoes in another guy’s face. Thanks a lot, Jack.