A storm in a pint glass

Large companies tend to spend a great deal of time and money clearing trade marks for registration and against infringement, but should they also pre-clear them for negative cultural connotations?  This is the question that sportswear company Nike must be asking itself this week. Thanks to Steve Getzoff from the New York offices of Reed Smith for alerting us to this story.
Do not adjust your monitor. It's meant to look like this.

The running shoe giant finds itself on the back foot in respect of its decision to nickname a new sneaker the "SB Dunk Low Black and Tan", a choice which the LA Times described, with perhaps a little hyperbole, as "akin, in some circles, to naming a sneaker the Taliban or the Nazi."

The controversy stems from the fact that, apart from describing the colour combination seen in the shoe itself, "Black and Tan" has two very different meanings. It is the name given to an alcoholic drink consisting of half a pint of stout, and half a pint of ale or lager combined in a pint glass (if poured carefully the black stout sits on top of the tan-coloured ale).  For those who know their Irish history, however, the name "Black and Tans" has a less appealing resonance, it being the nickname given to an auxiliary police force who served in Ireland during the 1920-1921 War of Independence ostensibly to keep the peace but who in fact were renowned for indiscipline and brutal attacks on the civilian population. The Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1921 explained the phrase "Black and Tans" to its readers as "The Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force of 7,000 ex-soldiers, a byword for brutality". Not surprisingly this reserve force was almost universally unpopular in Ireland, the name retaining its negative connotations to this day.

All of which leads to Nike's apology: "This month Nike is scheduled to release a version of the Nike SB Dunk Low that has been unofficially named by some using a phrase that can be viewed as inappropriate and insensitive. We apologise. No offence was intended."

The IPKat does not doubt for a second that Nike's apology is genuine, or that anybody involved even suspected that the name might have such negative connotations. 

However, the IPKat does wonder about the implied suggestion that Nike was a helpless bystander, watching from the sidelines as others dubbed the shoe with a name not of Nike's choosing (after all, the spokesman carefully says "unofficially named by some" rather than "nicknamed by us"). A photo of the inner sock liner shows a pint glass containing a beer looking suspiciously like a black and tan, with the "Nike SB" mark on the head of the pint. So calling the name "unofficial" is stretching it a little. And once the marketing gurus in Nike knew they were going to be launching a "Black and Tan" themed trainer, a Google search for this phrase should have told them they were treading on sensitive issues, which suggests that no such clearance was carried out.
Unofficially named, with some very official prompting

Nike is not the first to plant its size nines into this two-tone mess. Ben & Jerry's, the hippy ice cream makers from Vermont (or, if you prefer, the sub-brand of behemoth Unilever) had to issue a similar apology a couple of years ago when they named a new flavour "Black and Tan". They said “Any reference on our part to the British army unit was absolutely unintentional and no ill-will was ever intended. Ben Jerry’s was built on the philosophies of peace and love.”

For a contrarian view from an Irish person who
thinks those who are critical of Nike have the shoe on the wrong foot, the LA Times quotes a commenter named hotdubliner on the Irishcentral.com website:
I say wear them proudly! The only place a "Black and Tan" belongs is underfoot! Every time you kick a ball or pound them down by dancing them into the ground, hold that vision of divine retribution finally having its day! Purely symbolic, of course!

Black-and-tan cats here
Black and tan dogs here 
Black and tan movies here 
Four black and tans in a minute here.
A storm in a pint glass A storm in a pint glass Reviewed by David Brophy on Thursday, March 15, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. You mention that the, in 1921 The London Guardian newspaper gave an excplantgin of the phrase. The Guardian, as it is today, has never been called that. In 1921 it was most certainly the Manchester Guardian.

  2. The best ever is of course General Motors's naming of a Chevrolet model as NOVA, without realising what "no va" means in Spanish. And, en route to EXXON, Standard Oil of New Jersey forund out just in time that a potential candidate, its old trade mark ENCO, meant "stalled car" in Japanese.

  3. The Manchester Guardian it is, apologies for the lazy assumption. Now fixed.

  4. The best ever is of course General Motors's naming of a Chevrolet model as NOVA, without realising what "no va" means in Spanish.

    Oh no, the best is the Spanish car brand SEAT calling a new model "Malaga", after the Spanish town, ignoring that in the Greek market this sounded uncomfortably similar to a popular insult referring to a preference for...er...solitary pleasures.

    Or Mitsubishi calling a 4x4 the "Pajero", blissfully unaware that this meant something very similar in Spanish slang.

    Or Toyota calling a sportscar the "MR2", ignoring that, pronounced in French, this may be understood as meaning that the car was rather...shitty.

  5. I'm always surprised that the clothing brand "Superga" has managed to avoid association with the air crash tragedy of 1949.

    In that case though I understand that the brand was established long before that incident.

    Chris Torrero

  6. PowerGen Italia came up with this one. www.powergenitalia.it oooops

  7. On the subject of misnamed cars, Rolls Royce were intending to call the successor to the Silver Cloud, the Silver Mist until it was pointed out that Mist in German means manure or dung. Details: http://www.rrocwa.com/Resources/FAQ.htm

  8. A colleague who had studied at the old Salford Polytechnic at the time that the polytechnics were being rebranded as "Higher Institutes of Technology", told how the powers that be only realised at the last minute what the initials would spell out, and so called themselves the "Higher Institute of Technology of Salford".

    I understand that the "Womens' Institute of Ugley" adopted a similar reverse order naming stratagem for obvious reasons.

  9. I'm surprised no commenter has picked up on the paragraph:

    "The IPKat does not doubt for a second that Nike's apology is genuine, or that anybody involved even suspected that the name might have such negative connotations"

    Do marketeers still assert that all publicity is good publicity? How are sales of the product going today, in comparison to sales volume before the negative connotations were publicised?

  10. Being Norwegian I have always loved the story of the Honda Jazz, which at the time of launch in the nordic countries was to be named after what Wikipedia rather discretely calls " a popular and vulgar slang word for female genitalia".

    This was luckily caught in time

  11. I worked in the industry. Shoe model names are chosen by twenty-something product managers who need to come up with a kajillion names in a production cycle (the model name the many different shoes will ultimately have, plus the five or six more per shoe that won't clear). This was all done at a very low level of the company by someone very young, so it's no surprise no one picked up on the historical meaning - they surely all only know the drink.

  12. My personal favourite is the translation of "Jolly Green Giant" into Arabic, which when translated back into English reads "Intimidating green ogre". Ouch!

    Also a certain Swedish home appliances company tried to market their vacuum cleaners in the USA in the 1960s with the slogan "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux". Eeek!!

    The Dutch produce a perfume named after its creator "Joop" (a Dutch name), whereas in Russian this turns out to be a rather vulgar verb of quite biblical connotations (re: go forth and multiply.....).

    Chin-Chin - a toast in Italy, means a part of the male anatomy in Japanese.

    Marketing can sometimes be a real linguistic nightmare. A perfectly innocent word or expression can mean completely different things in another country, even ones sharing the same language. The results can be humorous, but also unintentionally offensive.


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