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New York Sun

April 16, 2004

What's In a Name? Plenty, Lawmakers Have Realized

The Bush administration has elevated the formerly pedestrian task of naming laws to a science.

Consider the USA PATRIOT Act. Few people even know it’s an acronym standing for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

The name is a fusion of Senate and House names for bills with similar provisions, but it took a House Judiciary Committee staffer days to imagine,and he finally came up with it while riding in his car.

If that phrase sounds forced, try the CANSPAM Act, designed to restrict the flow of unsolicited e-mail, which stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.

Or the PROTECT Act of 2004, which stiffened penalties against child pornography and bears the expanded name Prosecuting Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today.

Experts from the naming industry, which saw rapid growth in the 1990s when dot-com startups needed unique names for their Internet presences, say names like these allow politicians to get a head start in the political debate even before any literal argument has begun.

“They’re trying to cut off the conversation by defining it in a way favorable to the advocates of that law,” said the managing partner of Igor International, Steve Manning. He went on to discuss the name of the USA PATRIOT Act specifically. “Anyone who stands against it could be seen as unpatriotic.”

According to Mr.Manning and others, a good name becomes a demonstration of what the legislation, product, or service is trying to accomplish.

“Demonstrating is highly effective, explaining is costly, time consuming, and much less effective. What you fail to demonstrate you are condemned to explain,” he said.

The effectiveness of a name depends on the audience for the legislation. Straightforward names are effective for federal legislation, where the audience is large and diverse.

“Most people would immediately assume that a good name has to be wildly creative. Not so. A more overt,communicative, even descriptive name might be the most appropriate, the best name for you,” said the managing partner of Catchword Branding, Mark Skoultchi.

Abbreviations have dominated government discourse at least since the New Deal’s “alphabet soup” of government programs. Those abbreviations even spelled out words on occasion: President Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President famously became known as CREEP to political observers.

Naming the law began its current boom with USA PATRIOT. Many naming experts, regardless of their politics, found it to be an effective name for a law intended to protect the country from terrorists, describing it variously as “evocative,” “connecting to a rich history,” and “strong.”

Compare that to the debacle that was the Total Information Awareness initiative in 2002, the organization aimed at integrating law enforcement databases nationwide to be headed by Admiral John Poindexter. TIA evoked images of Orwellian government oversight, and the Bush administration had to pull back from the program.

Instead,the Florida state government began in 2003 the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange — the MATRIX. Under the new umbrella, states individually and voluntarily integrate their criminal database systems in an effort to prevent new attacks.

Though to the general public the name conjures images of the all-controlling computer system from the movies, the system is geared toward law enforcement officials and therefore garners positive reviews.

“This one is better than average,” Mr. Manning said. “The high-tech inference doesn’t hurt, given the audience.”

There is the chance that a strong name could backfire on its makers, when it comes to legislation. Mr. Skoultchi notes “names are usually the most enduring aspect of a brand.”

While unpopular legislation often recedes from the public consciousness, USA PATRIOT and its memorable brethren could stay in the spotlight for far longer than usual: Their opponents also find the names easy to remember.

CREEP Committee to Re-Elect the President

Funny, self-mocking, irreverent, unexpected. You can't help but roll this one around in your head, smile in a dark way, and soak up the wonderful stench of a name so perfectly spot-on. A beautiful thing, best of class.

DREAM Development and Re-Education for Alien Minorities

A higher, more connective aspiration than PROTECT, but still way overused and linear. Lobbying against DREAM is an uphill battle.

ICE Imigration and Customs Enforcement

This one has cachet. ICE demonstrates rather than explains. It is pure attitude and that attitude is dead on, making it highly effective on every level.

MATRIX Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange

This one is better than average. Given that the audience is primarily law enforcement, the negativity of the ultimate manifestation of Big Brother evoked by the film of the same name is negated. If this were primarily a public-facing name, it would be trouble. The high-tech inference doesn't hurt, given the audience.

PROTECT Prosecuting Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today

A word so basic, overused, and linear that you have little reason to dwell on it, make a connection with it, or remember it, much less recall what it is all about. It is explaining an idea rather than demonstrating one, a critical defect.


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