Big names, but not one clue

April 08, 2001|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Several months ago, out of the blue, a company named "Cingular" started sending me bills. I had never heard of Cingular, and I honestly did not know what these bills were for, so I put them in the pile where I keep documents that I intend to scrutinize more carefully later on, after my death.

Then I started seeing TV commercials for Cingular, but of course they did not make it clear what Cingular is, because the First Rule of Modern Advertising is: "Never reveal what you are advertising." In the Cingular commercials -- maybe you've seen them -- these little characters, which look like mutant starfish from space, walk around and make gestures. It is not at all clear why they are doing this. It crossed my mind that maybe they are mutant starfish from space, and Cingular is the name of their home planet, and they've sent bills to all of humanity, and they are gesturing to indicate that if we don't pay them, they'll vaporize the earth.

Eventually, I found out that Cingular is the new name of my cellular telephone company. It used to be BellSouth Mobility. Before that, I think it was just BellSouth. Before that, it was Southern Bell, and before that, I'm sure it was several other things. If you go far enough back, you'd probably find out that at one time, the name actually included the words "telephone company," so you could tell, from the name, what it did, which today would be a serious violation of business ethics.

So I paid my Cingular bills, because I need my cellular phone to communicate vital information ("Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? I can't hear you. Hello?"). I apparently have a cellular plan wherein all my calls are routed through a Burger King drive-thru intercom in Bolivia.

But my question is: Why do companies keep changing their names? And why do they always change them to names that don't mean anything? We consumers like names that reflect what the company does. We know, for example, that International Business Machines makes business machines; and Ford Motor makes Fords; and Sara Lee makes us fat. But we don't know, from the name "Verizon," what Verizon does.

And what in the world is "Accenture?" This is a company that buys a LOT of ads, the overall message of which seems to be: "Accenture -- A Company That Buys a LOT of Ads." I checked the Internet site, and here's what it says about the name: "Accenture is a coined word that connotes putting an accent or emphasis on the future." Swell! I am all for the future! But what does Accenture DO? What if it sends me a bill? Should I pay it? What if I don't, and it turns out that "Accenture" is the new name for the organization formerly known as "La Cosa Nostra?" My body parts would be found in nine separate Hefty bags. The police would shake their heads and say, "Looks like he didn't pay his Accenture bill."

This brings me to my idea for how you can make big money. You invent a new, modern-sounding company name, such as "Paradil" or "Gerbadigm," which are coined words that connote a combination of "paradigm" and "gerbil." Then you print official-looking invoice forms for this company, and you send out a mass mailing of bills for, let's say, $20.38 apiece, to several million randomly selected people. You enclose an announcement with a perky corporate marketing statement that is clearly a lie, and thus appears totally realistic, such as: "We've changed our name to serve you better!"

Granted, some consumers would throw the bill away. But a lot would pay it, because they're used to companies suddenly mutating on them. You'd get rich!

The only flaw in this plan is that the postal authorities might question its legality. If they give you any trouble, refer them to me, OK? My name is now Enron P. Citigroup.

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