The government of Canada, along with no doubt many others, frowns upon companies making health claims for which they have no evidence. This is supposed to nip in the bud deceptive practices like those exhibited in this pre-regulation 1652 handbill proclaiming the "vertues of coffee drink", in which the advertisement's author touted coffee as a prevention and cure for everything ranging from miscarriage to gout to "hypochondriack winds", whatever those may be. In that document, the claims were overt and brazen, with statements such as:
"It is excellent to prevent and cure the Dropsy, Gout and Scurvy."
"It is very good to prevent Mis-Carryings in Child-Bearing Women."
Yup, those are claims.
But in a recent case that's made headlines here in Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has determined that the names of two brands of infant formula made by Enfamil, A+ and Gentlease A+, also amount to claims, the former constituting a claim about nutritional superiority to other brands, and the latter an additional claim about ease of digestibility.
Which begs the question: What counts as a claim?
Well, since a claim is something that is either true or false, it seems as if it would have to involve a proposition, complete with a predicand and a predicate, a criterion that's easily met by our over-eager 17th century purveyors of coffee. Of course, not all propositions need be asserted—others can be implied:
Want to be free of colds all winter? Take Eradicold Pills and breathe easy.
The proposition that Eradicold Pills help to prevent colds is never asserted, but it's certainly implied. So much so, in fact, that studies dating back to the 1970s and 80s found that when people read advertising statements like these, and were later asked whether the ad contained a claim to that effect, they agreed that it had, often to the same degree as those who had actually read the same claim baldly asserted.
Evidence like this added muscle to the position taken by regulatory agencies that the definition of deception should extend well beyond asserted claims and into the realm of implied claims. Rightly so. But claims about products, whether asserted or implied, are different from impressions about products or associations linked to products. And when it comes to names, it can be tricky to disentangle these.
Take the Eradicold Pills example. In order to understand the above text as involving a particular claim, you had to clue in to the fact that the most likely purpose for talking about avoiding colds in one breath while suggesting you take Eradicold Pills in the very next was precisely to make a certain claim. Now, names on their own are clearly neither true nor false, so, in the same way, in order for a name to be understood as claiming something, the audience has to reason that the most likely purpose for choosing that particular name was to convey a claim about the product. But that's quite different from a situation in which a name simply brings to mind a certain impression.
Consider: In this day and age we're quite used to the idea of people's names as brands. It's not far-fetched, for example, to think of the name Geoffrey K. Pullum as a brand that's associated with elegant and blisteringly witty pop ling writing. I'm even willing to entertain the notion that such impressions are so indelibly linked with the name that you could devise a priming study involving Language Log readers as subjects in which seeing GKP's name would lead to faster recognition times for a subsequent word like witty. (Come to think if it, as a diagnostic of a successful branding campaign, that's actually not a bad measure.)
It would be far-fetched, though, to suggest that the name Geoffrey K. Pullum amounts to a claim that the person GKP writes about linguistics in an elegant and blisteringly witty manner. Most of us understand that, more likely, the reasons that GKP's parents had for naming him the way they did had more to do with appeasing familial ancestors, or simply liking the way the name rolled off the tongue, or—for all we know—honoring the memory of a long-ago secret lover. These inferences come from a) the theories we have about why people's names get picked and b), the particular names that are chosen. For instance, had GKPs parents named him Lenin Marx Pullum instead, we'd probably infer a different, more politically-motivated purpose.
Of course, names for products or businesses often are chosen with persuasive intent, and at the other end of the extreme, it's clear that some names are meant to make claims. For example, most people would likely understand that the purpose of a name like Speedy Muffler is to communicate that that particular establishment will change your muffler fast.
But most brand names fall somewhere in between the Geoffrey K. Pullum and the Speedy Muffler examples. They're often not overtly descriptive, but rather intended to suggest some property that the consumer will hopefully associate with the product. For example, when Rolls Royce named one of its cars the Silver Cloud, the company surely hoped to create an impression of the car as luxurious and comfortable. And I'm sure that this intent was fairly transparent in the minds of consumers. Still, I doubt that anyone took that to be a claim, with truth and falsity at stake. Same for drug names like Viagra or Celebrex, which suggest potency and happiness respectively, but probably aren't understood to be making any such claims about the drugs' effects.
I have no idea what criteria the CFIA used to determine that the Enfamil brand names constituted claims—my own experience with the legal applications of semantic or pragmatic concepts is that these are often extremely vaguely defined and only very coarsely motivated by any cognitive evidence. But the whole issue of names and whether they give rise to implied claims or merely suggestive impressions strikes me as a really interesting question. All the more so because of an experimental study that I recently discussed (Not so gullible after all; Aug. 3, 2011) in which the authors claim that company slogans are transparent to persuasive intent, whereas brand names are not. (The main finding of the study was a fascinating result showing that slogans but not brand names triggered a reverse-psychology effect in which subjects' behavior ran exactly counter to the associations for that company's brand—the idea being that some unconscious defensive mechanism kicks in whenever persuasive intent is detected). If it's generally true that names are more opaque to persuasive intent than other linguistic expressions, then people should be less likely to derive implied claims from them, since an understanding of their persuasive purpose is an essential ingredient in doing so.
In any event, whether or not the Enfamil brand names actually do or don't convey unsubstantiated health claims, it seems the products are staying on the shelves under those names for reasons having to do with the labyrinthine entrails of the Canadian regulatory bureaucracy.