The Art and Science of Naming Things

Not long ago, a colleague announced that he was changing his name.  He was replacing his fairly respectable moniker with something that sounded zippier and more memorable.  It’s not that he’d been tortured over his given name. He was simply, he informed me, changing his brand.

Even though his new tag would also fit a small chimp, the question is whether the new attention will be worth it.

After all, a name is just an introduction.  A brand depends more on what you do, for example, how consistently you produce a working slice of pizza or a chewy screenplay.

Nevertheless, there is a name so well known that it has also become a brand:  Kardashian. The Kardashian brand positioning, as most MBA’s will tell you, is that they’re the first generation of robots with working genitalia.  When they import a working vocabulary, everyone will want one.

I came by my “name brand” expertise honestly.  As someone who has simultaneously lived with a silly name and spent years naming products inside the advertising industry, I developed a rep as a product-naming guru.

My clients have included Mattel, the Jeffrey Dahmer of toy companies and several of its less notorious rivals.  (Names aside, I’m convinced the children who audition for toy commercials are Stepford children.)

For all that I’ve had my share of professional failures:                                                          

The “Bleeding Gums Cafe” restaurant chain.

Vidal Sassoon’s “Don’t Worry, It’ll Grow Back” salons.

Victoria Secret’s “Underpants Galore.”

Occasionally a product name actually contributes to or undermines its success.  I’ve written on projects for cool names like Nike and Porsche. I’ve also inhaled the heady aroma of the Urine Resistant Mattress–the account, not the actual product.

I swear by all the gods, it’s true.

The Urine Resistant Mattress Corporation would not consider an alternate for that god-awful name.  This was one advertising client who could not be moved off the proposition that a product name must also communicate a product benefit. The name wasn’t flashy but, in it’s way, it was memorable and, maybe even, unforgettable.

So we attended to actual advertising issues.   The client did not crack a smile at the idea that the Urine Resistant Mattress deserved a lively theme song.  I didn’t so much suggest it as hum a bouncy pirate jig.   But the idea of a television commercial truly appealed to him. We spent weeks, without success, looking for a worthy spokesman, some kind of celebrity bedwetter.  But no real names were willing to step forward and take this client’s money.

I took the cash without hesitation.  There’s a name for people like me.


In Hollywood there is no foreplay


My first screenwriting-for-hire assignment was going to be more dues-paying gig than career maker. The production company that brought me in was known for making movies which unfolded like this:  A group of very attractive young women breaks into a big, creepy house.  The sexiest one says, “I think I’ll take a shower.”  She locates a bathroom where a psychopath not played by Anthony Perkins expresses his frustration at strangers hijacking the only adjustable-flow showerhead in the house.   Verbal communication is a struggle for him so he expresses these feelings with a knife.

Within minutes, the audience is ready for a good scrubbing.

In the company’s defense, they were in the process of scaling up their subject matter, and the script they hired me to write had nothing to do with hacking sudsy co-eds to death.  This was to be a political thriller so the victim of the violent shower was more likely to be a diplomat.

In addition to actual writing, I had to show up occasionally at the production company’s office to confer with the Vice President of Development.  On my way to one of these meetings I bypassed the receptionist and pimp-rolled toward the VP’s young, voluptuous Assistant.  She was in the middle of a phone conversation and confided to her phone mate not very quietly, “I need to get laid.”

To a romantic like me, those were the five most caring words a woman could utter.

Did she actually mean the comment for my ears?   I needed clarification.  “I think you’re mistaking me for a director.  I’m just the writer.”  She scrawled a phone number on a post-it note and stuck it on my sleeve the way my kindergarten teacher clipped my mittens.

The only memory I retain from my meeting with the Director of Development is the image of the Assistant caddying refreshments into the office and tilting her cleavage in my direction whenever her boss made a story point.

After the meeting ended, rather than wait for my phone call, the Assistant asked me to drive her home.   How could I not come to the aid of someone who made me feel pretty damn special, especially this creature in an impossibly tight t-shirt?  So we crawled amiably through West Hollywood traffic, the most mundane circumstance possible for anyone to volunteer intimate stuff.  I didn’t have to dig to hear about her sexual fantasy.  She confessed it.  Her dream was to make love backed up against a brick wall in an alley.  I told her my fantasy was hearing her say that.   But I really wished she hadn’t left out that inconvenient detail before we left the office.


When we stopped at a red light, I wondered, “Do you ever get turned-on by old-fashioned stuff?  Kissing?  Touching?  Money?  Touching money?”

She wriggled coyly behind the seat belt. “I mean, what’s the big deal about sex in the alley?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe it’s the idea we could get caught?”

“Who’s gonna catch us?  A busboy?  Her left breast inquired, “Aren’t you into it?”

Do you have any fantasies that don’t require me to be on my feet?”

A homeless man carried a long blanket past my windshield and behind a Thai restaurant.  I’m thinking, at least he’s gonna get horizontal tonight.

In case the Assistant considered jumping out of the car, I had to take control.  “Look, if your heart’s set on the alley ambience, I guarantee you my bedroom is almost as dirty as the alley with a much lower risk of tetanus.  I can prop a few bricks under your ass to make you feel like you’re in a tenement.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” she offered. “How ‘bout let’s have a drink?”

I steered toward the first joint that offered a parking spot, a little tavern off Santa Monica Blvd.  I followed the Assistant past a trio of drag queens toward a rear booth upholstered in cracked, red vinyl.  I suppose I could’ve invested a bit more effort into finding out what she was really about, but once a woman lays out her sexual quirks for you, quizzing her about her favorite authors feels like a conversation best saved for another night. After we hammered back a couple of tequila shots, the Assistant sidled against me so I could feel every inch of her, hands-free, from hips to head.  She told me I was really talented and, banished any doubts about her sincerity by draping a leg over my knee.

“C’mon, it’ll be so fun.”  It, according to that year’s Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary meant: (noun), vertical intercourse in an alleyway.

“I’m sure it’s fun but it sounds so damned labor intensive.”

She put soft cool lips against my neck and showed me her little girl pout.  “Please?”

I let the Assistant pull me through the bar’s steel back door.  She kicked aside an empty Heinekin bottle, and leaned against a cinder block wall.  It really was more fun than my imagination let me conjure—hands, clasps, flesh, lips, and legs in miraculous synch–somehow managing to stay upright.

Two Drag Queens I never actually heard the drag queens come through the back door.  But the impact of the steel door against my heels launched me into the Assistant.  To this day, I don’t know if the groan she made was some kind of sublime ache or just the sound Oxygen makes when it’s forced through a woman’s voicebox.  Both of us crashed onto the blacktop.

The Assistant’s right foot was pinioned under the bottom of the steel door.  Her bra formed a boa around her neck like an accessory for a five-cent Isadora Duncan.  And with her jeans and panties locked around her ankles, she couldn’t pull free of the door.   The transvestites cooed their admiration for the Assistant’s anatomy.   I know it was admiration because no one seemed too worried about the blood streaming from the teethmarks in my scalp.

I’m absolutely certain the paramedics who extricated the Assistant’s broken foot from the bottom of the door never took their eyes off her breasts, because they managed to roll the gurney under the ambulance.

When the paramedic van finally drove off, a police cruiser flashed its brights at me.  The officer behind the wheel, two stripes on a short sleeve, waved me over.

I made sure to sound innocent and respectful.  “Is anything wrong, Officer?”

“No.  You okay?”

“I might need a stich or two for my head.”

His partner in the passenger seat motioned toward his dashboard monitor.  “Wanna see something?”
“Huh?  See what?”

That’s when I saw the last five minutes of my life played back in high definition, from the initial grope to me getting knocked sideways.
“Am I in trouble?”  I ran the bleak future possibilities through my head from Indecent Exposure to Sexual Deviance.  Could I bolt between buildings and possibly get away?

“Trouble?  Nah.  We like you.  You’re our hero.”

“If anything, she was the aggressor.”   The partner belly laughed.

The guy with the stripes could barely stop giggling to ask, “Do you want to file charges against her?”   His laughter almost made him retch.    He had to take a drag off an inhaler.

By the time I got to the emergency room, the Assistant was swiveling her casted foot into the front seat of her husband’s car.  Yes, husband.

I never saw her assisting the Development VP again.   She graduated to a memorable cameo role as the girl who showers in the creepy house.  I’m pretty sure she has a limp.