When is a name a claim?

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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.



15 Comments

  1. alyxandr said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 9:47 pm

    A Language Log author just confirmed that the phrase "begs the question" doesn't actually mean what it actually means. Cue skating in hell, aerodynamic pigs, and so on.

  2. Henning Makholm said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

    @alyxandr, you must be new here?

    Also, the three first words that come to my mind when I see the brand "Geoffrey K. Pullum" are "comments are closed".

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

    On the continuum between the Geoffrey K. Pullum and the Speedy Muffler examples, where stands I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! ?

  4. MH said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    @alyxandr: You might be interested in a short Language Log analysis of "Begging the Question": http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2290

    [(js) Good Lord! On the one hand, lovely post by myl, and I'm glad to see LL readers are paying attention. On the other hand: Sheesh. It's enough to make a writer cramp up in inhibition at writing anything without the full cover of at least two editors, or at least a pseudonym. Perhaps I'll start writing under Geoffrey K. Pullum and let his brand take the blame.

    How about if we call a truce and I promise never to use the phrase "begs the question" again, and you all promise to cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use.]

  5. Lance said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 1:32 am

    Huh. "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!" is clearly a claim; it's got a subject and a predicate. But while we can reasonably infer what "it" refers to (the product in the container), who does the "I" refer to? I wonder whether the CFIA would want to track down the executive who first proposed the name to find out whether or not that person genuinely cannot believe that it's not butter, in order to determine whether there exists any evidence for that person's claim.

    Well, all right, maybe not, since there's no actual health claim being made there. (At least not about the product. One might question the mental health of that mysterious name-proposer: is it really true that you're not capable of the belief that this is not butter? What other propositions are so fixed for you that you can't believe their negations?)

    [(js) It's important to keep in mind that even though I Can't Believe It's Not Butter appropriate a complete sentence for its name (and therefore, uses a linguistic expression that is either true or false), once it's used as a name, it's a name and no longer a sentence. For example, as a name, you can embed it within a sentence, and it shows up in all the usual places that you see names or other noun phrases. For example as a subject here: I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is my favourite. Or an object here: I can't believe you still buy I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that to the extent that I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is taken to be a claim, this is still accomplished by means of inference, and not directly by the name itself. To make the point: imagine I name my cat I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. That hardly seems to invite a claim about the similarity of my cat to butter, at least in any of the usual ways. But a margarine product does invite the claim—and it does so because we understand that products are often given names for persuasive effect, and that, given the nature of the product, making a claim about it similarity to butter would be persuasive to many people. Again, we have to be reasoning about the intent behind the name, and not reading the claim directly off the name—even when the name uses a full sentence]

    At any rate, it's a really interesting issue, and not being Canadian I'd missed the headlines about it. Being a linguist but not a lawyer, I'm not really sure which side I agree with–it seems weird that mere name could be making a claim, but if you decide it isn't then you end up being faced with "Alwayz-Werks heartburn medicine" and "Nev-R-Fail cold relief" and perhaps "Mis-Carry-Thee-Not brand coffee". (Well, like "Speedy Muffler".) But the hair-splitting necessary to then decide whether "Celebrex" is making an assertion…well, maybe that's why I'm not a lawyer.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    I actually had to think how the name Celebrex would imply happiness. Celeb as an abbreviation for celebrity is so frequent that it didn't immediately occur to me that it could also be an abbreviation for celebrate. (This once I'd got over my initial misreading as Cerebrex, which would clearly make you brainier).

  7. When is a name a claim? | English Teaching Daily said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 3:29 am

    […] Julie Sedivy says, "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". When is a name a claim? […]

  8. maidhc said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 3:52 am

    I remember this clarinet player who was always complaining about being allergic to cane … If only I had known to buy him an espresso!

    Gentlease sounds like a male escort service.

  9. Victor said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 4:56 am

    A name can certainly have content with truth value–but it need not do so as with ordinary claims.

    Consider three (some real, some not) cold remedies that have overlapping–if not identical–purposes:
    * No Time For Cold
    * Cold Defense
    * Cold-eZe

    The first one is a claim by implication; the second is a claim, period; and the third is … well, it requires a reanalysis to discern a claim (like Celebrex = celeb- + Rx + "perhaps there is a reference to brain here somewhere" >> prescription to happiness).

    "Cold Defense" is an outright claim about the efficacy of the product (more so than with Eradicold). And this claim has a truth value associated with it–either it helps to prevent colds or it doesn't.

    Not so with the name "No Time For Cold"–although the accompanying blurb may make the same claim as "Cold Defense", the name alone does not–it merely implies, through a chain of logical connections, that the substance in the box will defend you against getting a cold. I would say that the name is suggestive (of a claim), but is not an outright claim.

    [(js) My reply to Lance about claims deriving from names via inference rather than being directly off linguistic expressions applies here as well.]

    What about Cold-eZe? Isn't this an odd one? Certainly, one could read it as an implication that the name suggests "cold-EASE", which, in turn, implies that the product is intended to make the passage of a cold easier (clearly, a claim). But the manufacturer might have a retort that the name is meant to be a pun, a double entendre, and is no more a functional claim that the candy name "Smarties" (which it is meant to rhyme with)–Smarties (a Canadian brand, incidentally) is simply a flavored sugar "pill" and it in no way makes one smarter (it's candy, not a health product or vitamin).

    The word "functional" in the sentence above is not incidental. It goes to the heart of the issue. A functional name is more likely to contain a claim–a fanciful name is not, and a suggestive name is somewhere in between. This is actually something that may link the claim-worthiness of a product name to standard trademark law. And the remedy for the regulatory agencies may well come from trademark law too–in fact, I think, they would be foolish not to use it.

    When there is a dispute as to likelihood of confusion over a trademark, the mark holder (or, holders) often takes out a survey, asking customers about the implied meaning of the mark. It seems a regulatory agency should be able to take the same approach–don't substitute your own judgment for that of the general population. With the functional names, such as Cold Defense, a regulator may get away with a presumption that the name contains a claim. But, as this is not always clearcut, not only is the presumption of the contained claim rebuttable, but the very question of functionality of the name is rebuttable as well. And, when the name is not functional, it should be incumbent on the regulator to conduct a survey prior to making a claim about the contained or implied claim.

    This is what the situation should be with A+. I, for one, am not convinced by the regulatory claim. Clearly, it is a name that is meant to imply superiority, but it's not clear what kind of superiority. Is it the quality of the ingredients? nutritional content? taste and/or child preference? Suppose it was a name of dog food and not infant formula–would we not be asking the same questions? If a regulator simply chose the interpretation that he favored, he would have no problem creating a confirmatory survey with a single question–"Does the name A+ suggest to you that it represents a product with superior nutritional qualities, compared to other brands?" And an average statistician would rebut this by observing that the question introduces a severe bias, so that the manufacturer could easily defeat the regulator by producing an unbiased survey that suggests that the implied superiority is NOT merely a claim about nutrition.

  10. The Ridger said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    @alyxandr: The name of that fallacy is "petitio principi". "Begs the question" is a bad translation. I see no reason why people who can use "ad hominem" and "post hoc" should insist on a faulty English translation that clearly (pace Victor) doesn't mean what "petitio principi" does.

  11. alyxandr said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    Apologies to JS for a comment that came off as rather less witty and more obnoxious than was intended*. Thanks MH for the link and Ridger for the comment, although if something as benign as "begs the question" never fully caught on, what hope for the frighteningly elitist-sounding "petitio principi"?

  12. Glen Gordon said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

    Lance, quite frankly even *I* can't believe it's not butter. ;o) I take it less as a claim and more as an opinion or impression.

  13. John G said,

    November 20, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    Interesting possibility of referring to trade mark law as one way to evaluate names. Canadian law makes a trade mark unregistrable if it is descriptive or deceptively misdecriptive of the wares or services for which registration is sought. It says nothing about suggestive…

    I was once asked by the translators at the Supreme Court of Canada how to interpret in French a judge's phrase 'a bootstrap argument'. It came to me only a useless time later that the answer was a 'pétition de principes' – which rolls off the tongue (at least in French) much more readily than does 'petitio principii' in English.

    I think Mark Liebermann's suggestion in the note to which MH gives the link has the right suggestion: don't use the phrase either in the logical sense or in the popular one. (Not that the common one is all that popular among linguists.) He suggests 'assume the conclusion' for the logical use.

    Maybe if the logical point had a name that suggested the claim …

  14. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 7:32 am

    @ Erick and Lance
    One of my (then) young kids parsed that as "I Can't Believe It! Snot Butter!"
    I switched to Smart Balance.
    Another claim-y name-y product?

  15. George said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    @ richard howland-bolton

    Thanks… I don't think I'll ever be able to buy the stuff again.

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