or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Red Light

There is a Paco Rabanne scent called Ultraviolet Man, which I wrote about on my other blog. I like it a lot. Now, if you were the Paco Rabanne people (Rabanne himself probably has nothing to do with the fragrance line except collect royalties for his name) and you were going to launch a follow-up scent, what would you call it?

No-brainer, really. You'd called it Infrared, or, since some people would pronounced that as two syllables, "in-frayred", you'd spell it InfraRed. You'd make the bottle a dark, spacy red, and maybe you'd make it sort of red-smelling with blood orange and cinnamon, and it would be really cool.

Well, they did make a fragrance for men, they did put it in a red bottle, and they did put blood orange in it (the rest of it smells like praline, tonka bean, patchouli and vanilla, which is sweet and not particularly red, but still nice-sounding and of a piece with the previous scent), but they did not call it InfraRed. No, they called it UltraRed.

I suppose I'm being very humourless and literal, but that is not much of a name. In the West, the visible spectrum begins with red and ends with violet. (I don't mean to imply that in other parts of the world, it begins with green and ends with orange or something; it's just that not everybody names colours in the same way that we do, and in some cultures and languages, red and orange and yellow or blue and violet are bunched together as pretty much the same thing. It's not that they can't tell them apart, necessarily; it's that they never saw the need to separate them all out into various different colours, as we do.) There are electromagnetic wavelengths before red and after violet, of course, but everything between red and violet is what we can see. Picture the spectrum running vertically, with red at the bottom: anything below that is infra--literally "below" in Latin--the visible red. At the top is violet; anything above that is ultra--literally "beyond"--violet. Ultra red, therefore, is orange, and not red at all. Were they so stuck with the notion of "ultra" and the established brand name Ultraviolet that they figured nobody would notice or care?

Probably most people wouldn't. "Ultra" is a relatively common prefix in English for "more than" or "to the extreme", and so you could say that Ultrared makes a tiny degree of sense; it's clearly what they were aiming for. But "ultraviolet" doesn't mean "extra, super-duper violet", and that's not what they meant when the applied the name to the original scent, either: they were looking for something high-tech and modern, as you can tell by looking at the packaging and by the general Rabanne sensibility over the decades.

The problem isn't that prefix, exactly. English has a massive toolkit of affixes, and if you know what they mean, you can apply them at will to get exactly the word you want. But since "infrared" and "ultraviolet" already exist and have clearly defined meanings, you can't just swap the prefixes. If you write "infraviolet", at least some people are going to stop and say, "Wait a minute...." If you've made up the word as a joke, or for a particular effect, then you might be able to get away with it. But if you're lazy, or if you haven't thought the word through, then you have a problem.

I know I'm probably not the average consumer, but the moment I saw the name of the product, I thought, "Ultrared? Don't they mean Infrared?", and when I realized that they didn't, I decided it was just about the most hopelessly stupid product name I'd ever heard, and that presumably isn't what the marketing team is looking for.

Doesn't mean I won't try it, though.


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