Allen Peterkin

Every marketable service or thing has a worker attached to it. Some hapless soul paying rent. Somebody measures the height of speed bumps. Somebody checks that blue-rinse toilet bowl cleaners are the right size and shape and won’t give you extra flushes for free.

As for me, I have an English degree from an Ivy League school. And I’ve just been hired to name new antidepressants and mood stabilizers by a pharma-consulting conglomerate.

Now, you may be familiar with a few of the names that our company pioneered: Xapil, Proxi. Those are the top sellers of all time. We new Taggers, as we’re called, are told to stick to the end of the alphabet because it’s more “millennial.” That’s why there are all the Zs and Xs in drug names these days. I joked once that these trade names sounded a lot like friends of Superman and my boss replied, “Of course, they do. Stressed-out boomers take this stuff to handle the rat race and approximate something resembling happiness. They want to know that the Kryptonite in their lives can be neutralized.” Somehow, I knew better than to laugh.

As you may know, the “A”s and “B”s have long been used up, by Aspirin et al.

You also have to work damned hard not to give a name that too closely resembles another one here in the U.S. or in any country in the world. (Just think back twenty years when you had to check all those names by hand on foreign microfilm.) There once was a toenail medicine that sounded like an anti-seizure med, but actually gave people uncontrollable fits if they took it and didn’t have fungus under their nails. Ninety-six deaths worldwide. Trust me, nobody made the doppelganger mistake again. You also have to figure in doctors’ lousy handwriting, the cause of more deaths in America than complications from surgery or flesh-eating bacteria. That swirly, illegible “Y” that should be a “G” could actually kill you.

“Make the product name distinct with letters that can’t be MISUSED,” is what we’re told every week at staff meetings. Then you have to figure that one word in Swahili could be an insult in Arabic. You might even have to come up with more than one tag for more than one market. (Remember why nobody bought the Chevy Nova in Mexico? No-Va in Spanish means “won’t go.” The author of that vehicular disaster no-va’d his way right out of advertising.

I was telling my mother, who has been trying to convince me to go to grad school or even medical school, that there’s an art to selecting names. You have to instill confidence, not just evoke limitless technological progress. One of the first psychopharm bestsellers was Valium. The name subliminally suggested valerian, a calming herb used for centuries and trusted by medics, grandmothers and nannies alike. Take a more modern example— Paxil. Well, Pax is obvious even to a hick who never studied Latin in his life. Lofty even. Gives meaning and a solution to your troubled mind. Who wouldn’t want some pax when they’re ill? Having said that, another rule right from the FDA is that you can’t feed it to them on a spoon so as to have unfair market advantage. HARDEX (rather than the famous, blue V-drug, which poetically suggests life and vigor rather than penile tumescence) would clearly have been vulgar and excessively enticing. Similarly, our Mood Division can’t directly imply joy or happiness with any of our drugs (thus no Happex, JoyZ, Laffmore).

One must always strive to rise above the sales pitch in drug-naming. These products are not hamburgers or curling irons. To achieve this delicate balance, we’ve hired poets, Latin and Greek scholars, Scrabble junkies, specialists in music theory and theology, even rocket and ballistics engineers, in order to give us choice roots, prefixes and suffixes. I’m actually working on a few ideas right now based on Greek and Nordic mythology. I think “W”s will be big soon, because of the Web and the hundreds of times people punch in “www” everyday. Womb. Show me the Way. Wonder.

Of course, I can’t give you specific examples because our work is closely guarded. Ever since Rival B got wind of SeReNeX for INSOMNIA. (Not to be confused with a garden variety, over-the-counter sleep aid, whose worldwide product recognition has, however, not hurt its serene, hot-off-the-press, new-prescription rival.

My boss has promised me a $10,000 bonus if I come up with the next best thing. As good as Xapil for generalized anxiety disorder. (It’s a little known fact that it had been Zapil until weeks before the product launch. But it made the very last focus group think of bug sprays.) I have to admit (though not to my mother) that I have grown a bit disillusioned, not with advertising per se but with the whole mental health field, since I learned last week that they test antidepressants by throwing intermittently shocked, depressed rats into a tank of water to see how long they swim. Give them Xapil and they swim longer. Until the next time. Placeboed rats sink. You can then graph: T=time against D=dose of wonder-drug.

Not exactly happiness, but a receptor-tweaked brain, a mean backstroke, and an absence of drowning.

I am not completely insensitive to metaphor, even in this business. Or in life, for that matter. After I run out of “W”s, I’m going to suggest the new uber-med should be called STYX (has both an X and a Y in it!). Just to see if they get it. Or maybe I’d better ask to get my ass moved over to antihypertensives asap before I get into serious trouble.

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