Marketing through pseudoscience

A typical 19th-century phrenology chart
A typical 19th-century phrenology chart Wikimedia Commons

Want to put your company or product on the cutting edge of science? Simple. Add a trendy prefix or suffix to its name. But beware: what linguistic fashion raises up, it can also bring down.

Electric. In the 19th century, electricity represented the future, so marketers affixed "electro" prefixes to any and everything. Consumers could purchase Dr. Hallock's Electric Pills ("for weak, worn-out, or nervous people") or Electro-Silicon Polishing Powder for touching up your silver. Such products shared a common trait: they had absolutely nothing to do with electricity, though just thinking about the Galvano-Electric Regenerator ("a certain cure for Spermatorrhea, Impotency, Seminal Losses, &c.") must have caused some to feel tingly all over. At least Electro-lumps—a marketer's brainstorm for coal—could actually generate electric current.

-ex. How or why the "–ex" suffix came to be associated with things scientific has baffled researchers. (One theory holds that it evokes such highbrow, Latin-derived technical terms as "convex" and "cortex.") During the first half of the 20th century, -ex's multiplied like wire hangers in a coat closet: Pyrex, Sinex, Playtex—and let's not forget Kleenex. But progress marches on and recent decades have favored a new and improved version: "–ix." Thus, we now have Technix (a manufacturer of rubber and plastic products) and even—double or nothing—Solarix Intellectronix (a search engine). In 2005, a European court dismissed a trademark infringement case brought by publishers of the Asterix comic strip against the MobiliX software project. With this legal hurdle cleared, ixpect an –ix-filled ixistence.

-ola. During the early 20th century, manufacturers decided that "–ola" would add a warm glow of technological competence to audio and electronic products—despite an unfortunate association with such infectious diseases as rubeola. The fad began with a player piano trademarked in 1900 as Pianola. (Arthur Loesser, a piano historian, said the suffix "sounded easily mechanical, playfully pleasant.") Then, along came Victrola, Radiola, Rock-Ola, Moviola and Motorola. But "ola" fell out of favor during the "payola" radio scandals of the 1960s (until the food industry resurrected it for a range of wholesome, nutritious wannabes such as Bran'nola and canola).

-tronics. In its April 1961 issue, Time magazine noted that "a stock whose name suggests either electronics or technical mystery seems sure to have a jump in price." Certainly "-tronics" were everywhere: Radiatronics, El-tronics and Powertron Ultrasonics. This magical suffix did not prevent many of such companies from short-circuiting when the -tronics stock bubble ultimately burst in 1962.

Cyber- Author William Gibson is usually credited, or blamed, for the "cyber" prefix because he introduced the concept of "cyberspace" in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. By the mid-1990s, cyber-mania was in full swing, producing such oddities as Chanel's Cyber Glow cosmetics and designer Betsey Johnson's "Suzie Cyber" fashion line, despite, one journalist noted, that "in cyberspace no one can see what you're wearing." By the end of the decade, cyber-nausea had set in and overusers of the term were banished to Cyberia.

Nano- Lately the prefix trend has been shrinking. During the 1980s, "mini-" gave way to "micro-," which has yielded to "nano-." In the new millennium, companies such as Nanometrics, Nanogen and NanoPierce Technologies have all embraced the prefix, despite complaints their products were hardly nano-scale (a billionth of a meter or smaller). Even Eddie Bauer sells stain-resistant nano-pants. (They're available in "extra-large" for the retailer's not-so-nano customers.) Proceeding down the scale leads one inexorably to yocto-, a metric prefix meaning one-septillionth. If you're thinking of trademarking yocto, you'd better move fast, before the iPod Yocto appears on store shelves.

Alex Boese is the author of Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. (Harcourt, 2006).
He lives in San Diego.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.