Buick LaCrosse's French slang meaning latest example of pitfalls of car names
VANCOUVER, B.C. - Imagine for a moment you're a car-proud resident of some upscale Quebec suburb and you've got a brand new 2010 Buick LaCrosse in your driveway.
You beam as your neighbour comes over to admire the $40,000 sedan, with its sleek redesigned body and optional all-wheel-drive system. Until a smirk crosses his face as he mentions, carefully offhand, that LaCrosse is slang these days for, well, pleasuring yourself.
As you hop in the car, steaming, and drive away, a couple of parting shots reach the well-insulated cabin, something about keeping both hands on the wheel and being master of your own domain.
The original LaCrosse was launched in 2005 but badged in Canada as the Buick Allure, apparently because someone pointed out the name's prurient connotation en francais.
But with a redesigned model debuting this year, the ailing auto giant has adopted the LaCrosse name for Canada too, saving potentially millions in advertising and marketing costs.
GM hopes Quebec customers will hear the name and think of Canada's national summer sport and not the other thing.
"It was in fact our dealers in Quebec who wanted the name changed," says George Saratlic, a GM Canada product communications spokesman.
"They saw little down side to using the LaCrosse name in common with the U.S. and recognized the huge upside in terms of the enhanced advertising support that could be derived from the LaCrosse name and creative work done for it in the U.S."
This is hardly the first time a carmaker has been tripped up by an automotive double entendre.
It happens all the time, says Ira Bachrach, founder of NameLab, a San Francisco-based branding consultant that numbers major car companies as clients.
"You sit in a room and there's always some guy in the back who says that means sexual perversion in Nicaragua," says Bachrach.
"Most companies ignore it or at the very worst they do research to see whether a), it's generally perceived in the audience they care about and b), whether it's relevant, whether the audience really cares."
The problem usually crops up when models are given foreign-sounding names that for some reason end up having sexual implications.
Take Ford's infamous Pinto subcompact, best known for a design flaw that risked an explosion in a rear-end collision. Yes, Pinto is Spanish for a small spotted pony but also Brazilian Portuguese slang for penis.
Mitsubishi's little Pajero SUV was named after a species of South American leopard. Turns out, though, it's also Spanish slang for, er, la crosse.
The romance languages strike again with the Mazda hatchback Laputa, which if the syllables are separated, is Spanish for "the whore."
There's a story circulating on the web, which Bachrach doesn't believe, that Honda had to ditch the name Fitta for its latest subcompact - going with Fit instead - because in Scandinavian countries it's a rude word for a woman's private area.
But he does know Henry Ford II resisted naming his youthful new sporty car the Mustang because someone pointed out the wild pony had a reputation for being randy. The ad campaign's proposed slogan "make out in a Mustang," reinforced the inference.
"Almost everything that has any energy is in some way a sexual allusion because our language is absolutely rife with sexual allusion. It usually doesn't matter."
Some automakers, notably German luxury marques, have avoided the naming pitfall by using alpha-numeric designations that come to be significant to consumers.
The name Porsche 911 resonates the way no phallic description ever could. Same with BMW's M series performance cars or Mercedes' luxury S-class.
The German approach is to put the focus and the marketing horsepower on the marque as the identifier in the customer's mind, says Bachrach.
"In general they like to concentrate the brand identity in the brand name and not deconstruct it into a series of model names," he says.
You can see some of that now at GM, where Cadillac has dispensed with names like Coupe De Ville and reduced models to letter codes.
Japanese automakers also stress the company name as the core marque. But that hasn't stopped them from delivering some bizarre model names.
Nissan's legendary 240Z sports car was first sold in Japan as the Fairlady.
The Japanese home market has offered such gems as Honda's Acty Crawler, Mazda Bongo Friendee, Honda Life Dunk, Toyota Deliboy and the Isuzu GIGA 20 Light Dump.
Bachrach, who lives part of the year in Japan, says the language is full of puns and related wit.
"So when they use English they like to do things which are homonyms for other English words or for Japanese words," he says.
His favourite, the Nissan S-Cargo, is a tiny, snail-shaped commercial van.
As for the LaCrosse, Bachrach says it's probably an improvement, marketing-wise, from Allure. Feminine car names are sales poison, he says, even among women, and likely the real reason behind the name change.
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