Gotta catch 'em all

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Don Seiffert, "Is it a drug, or is it a Pokemon?", bioflash 11/18/2014:

It was while trying to straighten up my 10-year-old son's room that I hit upon the answer to the age-old question of where do they come up with the names of new drugs.

The answer: It's got to be the same people who come up with the names of new Pokemon characters.

To support his hypothesis, Mr. Seiffert made up a quiz:

I mixed up the names of six actual, approved of drugs marketed by local biotech firms with the names of six Pokemon characters chosen from the complete list of 721 on the website managed by Nintendo. I am fairly certain that most people won't be able to differentiate between all of them.

My score was 8 out of 12, which is  barely better than chance, and very disappointing given how  much parental time, a decade ago, I put into my son's extensive collection of Pokemon figurines.



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

    Creating drug marketing names (as opposed to generic names, and who the hell knows where they come from‽) was a fairly early use of data processing technology in advertising and marketing. In the late 1950s or early 1960s, Mad Men, purportedly with the help of linguists, created lists of syllables and had a computer spit out reams of permutations of up to three or four syllables, which were then reviewed by the human team for pronounceability and for what they took to be the name's subliminal appeal and appropriateness for the drug they were naming.

    I have no clue whether anything like that is still done or whether it was considered a successful method in the first place.

  2. Peter Fedak said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    Seiffert is not the first to make this observation. If you haven't yet had your fill, a longer quiz can be found here:

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    Dick Margulis – if I recall the anecdotes correctly, something like that name-generation approach was being done as of the early '70's at a major U.S. chemical company that needed a steady supply of trademarkable names for new plastics etc., because my dad had some role in the selection process (once it had been whittled down to a manageable number of finalists).

  4. Bruce said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    An interesting and short paper from the Journal of Current Pharmaceutical Research about how both generic names and brand names are regulated. Drugs are not allowed to start with "x" or "z" due to the risk of confusion, for example.

    On branding:

    "The names often make use of linguistic tricks, such as
    plosive letters (P, T or D) to convey power, or fricative letters (X,
    F, S or Z) to imply speed. This, in part, helps explain the number of
    Xs that show up in drug names. The marketing industry has been
    infatuated to letter X e.g. Nexium, Clarinex, Celebrex, Zinetac,
    Corex, Xanax, Zyban and Zithromax. These letters are popular
    because they look better in print, make sounds people like saying
    and are associated with innovation. Moreover this flamboyant and
    swashbuckling letter X is associated with science fiction, high tech,
    computers, and automobiles. As per James L. Dettore (president of
    the Brand Institute, a branding company based in Miami who has
    tested 8,400 drug names in the last seven years and successes
    include such brand names as Lipitor, Clarinex, Sarafem and
    Allegra) the letters X, Z, C and D are phonologic and these
    subliminally indicate that a drug is powerful. Few brand names
    even denote the gender of the brand. Most words ending with the
    'a' sound suggest feminine gender."

  5. Nathan said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

    @Bruce: If drug names aren't allowed to start with X or Z, why do so many (including a few in the quote)?

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

    Nathan: the last page of the linked article clarifies that the moratorium on initial X or Z applies to generic names, not brand names. So, e.g., Zithromax is a brand name for the drug known generically as azithromycin. Since a lot of new drugs are patent-protected such that only one brand will initially be on the market, trademark lawyers worry about how to protect the brand name from becoming generic (and thus not protectible by trademark) before the drug goes off-patent.

  7. Sili said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    I think I'm on the tailend of people who should know Pokémon, but I only got 7/12.

    And that was after I went back and changed 2 drugs to Pokémons to get 6 of each. Most of them sound more druglike that pokémonesque.

  8. AntC said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

    Another data point. I know nothing about Pokemon characters, have no kids, don't even really know what Pokemon is. (And I deliberately didn't try to find out before taking the test.)

    So really I was only judging by what sounded plausible as a drug name.

    My score: 2/12. This isn't even Mark's "barely better than chance". Do I call it "significantly worse than chance"?

  9. Rubrick said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    I'd be remiss if I didn't link to Lore Sjöberg's classic Porn Star or My Little Pony quiz. I've rarely seen anyone do better than chance.

  10. Emily said,

    November 20, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

    I got a perfect score due to a mixture of lucky guessing and osmosis from the Pokemon fans in my immediate social circle. The results page is interesting, too– most people seem to recognize Gyarados correctly, and identify the final entry, Xopenex, as clearly druggy.

  11. Graeme said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 7:49 am

    Following Rubrick's rubric: Is it an IKEA brand or a Death Metal Band?

    There's a meme afoot…

  12. Pete said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    Just to add another:

  13. Theo said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    And of course, Cheese or Font?

  14. Emily said,

    November 21, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    I saw a quiz with a similar premise (though sentence-level rather than lexical) a whole decade ago– Alt Rock Lyric or Spam?

  15. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 22, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    I guess this is "arbitrariness of the signifier" meets "everybody loves online quizzes"?

  16. Jack said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 9:50 am

    I did manage to get 12/12 on that, but some of those (like Fampyra) felt like chance.

  17. RobertL said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 1:09 am

    Q. How do you get Pikachu on to a bus?
    A. You poke him on!

    I'll get my coat…

  18. Baylink said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

    I pay some attention to the pharma biz, and I still only got 6/12.

  19. Keith said,

    November 27, 2014 @ 2:58 am

    Eight out of twelve… and for that I thank my nephews who introduced me to the names of all seven hundred and odd pokemons in both English and French.

    I didn't know that generic drug names could not begin with X or Z: thanks for that, Bruce.

  20. Svafa said,

    December 3, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    I may play too much Pokemon. I aced it and the 40 question quiz from the comments based solely on knowing Pokemon names.

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