For those who don’t know, a portmanteau is a combination of two (or more) words and their definitions, into one new word. Like smog (smoke + fog) or motel (motor + hotel). Pronounced PORT MAN TOE, it’s a strong linguistic device that can be quite memorable. So it’s natural that these combos become a part of modern vernacular. However, the portmanteau, in all its wonder, can be used poorly when it comes to marketing and branding, and lately this seems to be the direction in which things are going. Cue the example found in the title of this article: BADvertising.
Portmanteaus are powerful when leveraged appropriately for names of brands, products, slogans and even every day words. Companies like Verizon, a combination of veritas and horizon, have benefited greatly from the ability to own a word completely. Whereas standard words in a language can legally have conflicts with many other companies, the word Verizon runs no risk of brand infringement. Even science has used the portmanteau as seen in “vitamin,” a combination of vitality and amine.
However, what started as a handy linguistic tool has quickly become a method of forced pseudo-wit in advertising and branding. It seems brands and their agencies are abandoning the creative process outright and settling for bottom of the barrel, half-baked attempts at being clever. Most agencies would scrape these initial jokey ideas and move on to something stronger and more creative. So, what is the latest round of literary leeches sucking the life out of a campaign?
Know your enemy, aka the Bad Guys:
Burger King with their “Satis-fries” campaign:
Robitussin with their “Don’t Suffer the Cough-equences” campaign:
Subway with their ongoing crimes starting with “Janu-any “ and “Febru-any” campaigns:
What makes these campaign one-liners so evil? First, in each of these campaigns the words combined aren’t of the same category. Burger King combines a sensation and a product. Robitussin combines a physiological action and an outcome. Subway combines months with their word of the moment. Portmanteaus that stick are the ones that combine words that are similar in sound and function. The root words have something in common beyond sound.
Second, a lot of times the word combination has a pronunciation hiccup. For instance, “cough-equences” has an unnatural sound. It’s hard to say correctly and even harder to read, then pronounce.
Finally, they are blatantly pandering and pleading to a market. There is no creativity in the copy, just two words mashed together in the hopes that the brand would be “speaking the language” of the market and have a certain level of memorability.
Not to worry, there are some great portmanteaux in use every day that stand as beacons of hope for creatives.
Say hello to the Good Guys:
Spork. I’m sure we’re all very familiar with this guy. The spork is a combination of a spoon and fork both linguistically and physically. Because it’s easy to pronounce, it has stuck as a common word in our culture.
Turducken. There’s a lot of fowl play here in all the right ways. The tasty Turducken is a turkey stuffed with a duck that’s stuffed with a chicken. Naturally, the names of the birds involved are also combined to name this delicious beauty. Once again, pronouncing this word is fluid and simple with no linguistic interruptions.
Brunch. It makes the weekends even more fun. That lovely little bit of time between breakfast and lunch. For those who got up too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch, there is a mealtime with the best of both worlds.
As always, successful advertising does need to be memorable. But a poor attempt at humor and wit is not the way to do it. As creatives, we are tasked with digging through the weeds to find the promised land of creativity, relevancy and brand paradise. Here is my advice for those too lazy to go the extra mile: Try harder. Or get the ax when your poor portmanteau campaign hits the dirt.