The world loves ‘googling’. We ‘google’ everything. Is there any topic left that’s ‘ungooglable’?
These three sentences show ‘genericide’ at work. The Oxford English Dictionary defines genericide as: “The process by which a brand name loses its distinctive identity as a result of being used to refer to any product or service of its kind.” So, if I say: “Let’s google ‘genericide’”, I’m taking the registered trademark Google® and turning it into a verb, which I use to mean: “Let’s look up information about genericide using a generic search engine”.
OK, this might seem as a good thing for the brand managers at Google® but it is actually not. Why? Because if a trademark becomes used in a generic way, a court could judge that the company has lost its right to own that trademarks.
Aspirin, Escalator, Thermos
And that does sometimes happen. Aspirin is one of the most famous examples. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer started trading acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) under the trademark Aspirin in 1899. But then in 1918 Bayer lost the rights to the Aspirin trademark in the US. The judge ruled that so many other companies had been trading ASA under the name aspirin that the trademark had become generic. Escalator and Thermos are two other names that have lost their registered trademark status.
Some companies spend a huge amount of money trying to ‘educate’ the public on how to use their trademark correctly. The photocopier company Xerox created a slogan: “You can’t xerox a Xerox on a Xerox. But we don’t mind at all if you copy a copy on a Xerox® copier.” While over at the firm Kimberly-Clark, the brand managers want us to say: “Do you have a Kleenex® Brand facial tissue?” Do you get the feeling these guys don’t live in the real world?
In the 1980s, American congresswoman Pat Schroeder called President Reagan “the teflon president.” Teflon is a brand of non-stick coating used on frying pans. She meant that scandal didn’t stick to Reagan and even when he made mistakes he remained popular with the voters. The company DuPont, who at that time owned the Teflon brand, contacted the newspapers requesting that they write “the Teflon® president”! In the early 2000s the same idea was used for Tony Blair who became known as “Teflon Tony”. As far as I know, no newspapers agreed to add the ® symbol.
So, who had the right to decide how words can be used, the big corporations or the millions of language users? If the newspapers ignored the Teflon® request back in the 1980s, the idea of brand managers trying to stop people saying “Let’s google it” on social media is surely even more ridiculous.
Holding back the tide?
It reminds me of a story from English history. In the 11th century, the Viking king of England, King Canute, allegedly took his throne down to the beach and ordered the sea not to wet his feet. Of course, the tide paid no attention, Canute’s feet got wet and he responded: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.” Aren’t the brand managers at Google and the other big brands equally as powerless against the tide of genericism?