In a series of comments on a recent post, Stephen Jones observed that "The Iranians have a detergent called 'Barf'"; and Language Hat explained that "That would be because barf is the Farsi word for 'snow'"; and Merri added this:
Speaking of modified brand names, this is a good place to recall that the washing stuff "Dreft" -a purely arbitrary name- was at first coined as Drek, until somebody at P&G realized that this is the Yiddish word for s**t.
The trouble is, these stories about cross-language branding disasters generally turn out to be urban legends. I dissected one of them a few months ago, dealing with the alleged fate of the Ford Pinto brand in Brazil ("The Factoid Acquisition Device"). And we've discussed a number of other such legends over the years, with the result so that I've come to wonder whether any of the language-related stories that marketing professors tell their students are ever true.
So this morning, purely as an academic exercise, I decided to spend a few minutes looking into the legend of Dreft and Dreck.
Merri didn't invent this story — it's out there, in one version or another, both in the blogosphere and in at least two published books. Thus in a recent blog post ("Today is Cyber Monday. Wait, whaaaaa?" 12/1/2008), we read:
In 2005, the National Retail Federation decided to call the Monday after Thanksgiving “Cyber Monday.” It’s supposed to symbolize a busy day for online retailers and be their promotional equivalent to the brick-and-mortar stores’ Black Friday.
However. The name? Would not have been my first choice.
Didn’t anyone tell the NRF that “cyber” as a verb means “to have cybersex?”
Or did they hire the same marketing consultants who originally gave Procter & Gamble’s “Dreft” detergent the name “Dreck” without realizing that it was a Yiddish word for garbage?
And a comment on a blog post from 4/26/2007 about Yiddish vocabulary, we get a slightly different version of the story, in which Dreck was the name of a follow-up product:
Years ago, Procter & Gamble had success with Drene (shampoo) and Dreft (detergent. So based upon brand recognition, they created Drek. They pulled the name after trying to sell to the first Jewish wholesaler in Chicago.
It's apparently true that P&G introduced Dreft in 1933 and Drene in 1934; but I haven't been able to find any evidence that the company actually marketed or even contemplated a follow-up "Dreck". A joke to this effect must have been independently invented many times from the 1930s onward, and such jokes are often re-interpreted as history.
According to Google Books, the "Dreft-was-originally-Dreck" version of the legend can be found in Charles Merle Crawford and C. Anthony Di Benedetto, New Products Management, 1999, on p. 377. The "snippet view" gives enough information to allow me to reconstruct this passage of advice on choosing a new brand name:
Conduct interviews with users to screen the list down. Ask what the brands on your list mean. This is the stage where P&G caught Dreck (Yiddish and German definitions included garbage and body waste), so it was changed to Dreft. When down to less than 10 candidates, get a legal check on their availability and …
Crawford and Di Benedetto were not the first to tell this story. Google books also turns up a passage in Stephen Birmingham, The Golden Dream: Suburbia in the Seventies, 1978. p. 47. This time I was not able to recover the complete passage, but with in internal ellipsis, it reads:
Advertising plans, layouts, and schedules were drawn up to present Dreck to the American … Hastily, the name of the new soap powder was changed to Dreft.
As far as I tell, though, neither book gives any source for the claim.
The Wikipedia article on Dreft takes the lexicographical influence back in the other direction, asserting that
The term "dreft" has entered the vernacular as a synonym for feces, as newborns tend to produce copious amounts of it.
However, the article offers no evidence for this assertion, and I haven't been able to find any genuine examples of the alleged vernacular usage.
One additional aspect of the situation is indicated by this commercial, said to be from 1937 (for showing in cinemas), which underlines the fact that Dreft was then marketed as a dishwashing detergent. It's not clear to me whether it was simultaneously marketed as a laundry detergent, or if the laundry applications came later.
Anyhow, my verdict on the Dreft/Dreck legend is "not proven". (If you have any evidence to add, please supply it in the comments section — there's no prohibition against double jeopardy for urban legends.) I certainly haven't shown that cross-language marketing stories are always false, but neither have I found that they are
ever very often true.
[To avoid any possible offense, let me stipulate there really is an Iranian detergent named "Barf", and LH's explanation of the name is certainly true. But whatever issues this may have raised in other countries, the Paxan company has not felt the need to change its brand.]