During a recent evening of TV viewing I saw repeated airings of “Going Pink,” the latest installment in Verizon Wireless’s long-running “Susie’s Lemonade” ad campaign. The ads, created by McCann Erickson, feature a plucky, adorable girl, age 8 or 9, who over the course of the campaign turns a conventional idea—a neighborhood lemonade stand—into a mini-empire. The ads have been praised for “depicting a positive female role model” (AdWeek) and for being “memorable,” “engaging,” and “heartwarming” (Beyond Madison Avenue).
The spots—you can the original one here—are indeed charming and expertly produced. But something bothers me about them: Susie. Not the character—her name.
Think about it: how many 8-, 9-, or 10-year-old American girls do you know named Susie? If you have a young daughter, was Susan or Susie on your short list of names for her? I’m guessing the answers to those questions are “none” and “no,” because Susan/Susie is very far out of the 21st-century baby-naming mainstream (yet not far enough out to be cycling back into popularity, like some early-20th-century names). The last time Susan was in the top 100 baby names was in the 1980s, according to the Baby Name Wizard’s Name Voyager tool. (It ranked #4 in the 1950s and #3 in the 1960s.) In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, Susan barely appears on the graph: its rank was #792.
So why would Verizon and its ad agency give their protagonist such an unpopular, anachronistic name—a name that now suggests not a fourth-grader but her grandmother? Laura Wattenberg of Baby Name Wizard looked at this question in a different context in a November 2010 blog post, “The Mysterious Persistence of Little Johnny,” whose title I’ve cribbed. Wattenberg was inspired by this New Yorker cover:
In her post, Wattenberg observes that we still turn to names like “Tommy,” “Johnny,” and “Sue” whenever we need “generic symbols of American childhood.” They’re examples, she says, “of a distinctive faux-name species: the Mid-Century Normative Child (MCNC).” She continues:
I remember the generic use of “Little Johnny” sounding old-fashioned back in my 1970s childhood. All these years later, Johnny still rules the roost alongside the New Yorker’s Tommy and Sue, as well as Jimmy (a generic child I spotted in a recent Dear Abby column). All of those names had their heydays in the mid 1940s. The most up-to-date name on the standard MCNC list is Timmy, which peaked in the late ’50s.
It’s as if we locate the essence of childhood itself in that narrow historical period. There’s some logic to that. The early bound is set by the end of WWII, and the first generation of American kids fully protected by child labor laws. The end is the last cohort to experience childhood before the creeping cynicism of the Vietnam era. We signal “little kids” with names historically pinned to innocence and carefree prosperity.
If Verizon had wanted its young heroine to sound like she was born around 2002 or 2003, it could have given her a plausible name such as Ellie (rising fast over the last decade), Ava (in the top 25 since 2004, and #5 last year), or Emma (#2 in 2003, when “Susie” was probably born). A name like Lily (in the top 100 since 2000) would have said “21st century American girl” while also alliterating nicely with “lemonade.” “Emily’s Lemonade”—Emily was the #1 girl’s name in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007—has a nice ring and a satisfying anapestic dactylic meter, too.
And if Verizon had wanted to be trendy and realistic and alliterative, it could have used the actual first name of its young star: Lennon. (Her last name is Wynn.) You just can’t ask for a more perfect example of the early-21st-century girl’s name style than Lennon: androgynous, celebrity-influenced, and historically rare. (Lennon has never been ranked among the top 1,000 baby names for either sex.)
But contemporary realism and fashion were clearly beside the point in the Verizon ads, despite their emphasis on GPS, 4G LTE, and other whiz-bang technology. “Susie” seems to have been chosen because it’s quaint and anachronistic. The name belongs to a dimly remembered past, a golden age in which kids didn’t need adult supervision or city permits to operate lemonade stands, and parents didn’t care if their kids’ names weren’t cool and unique. Normative was the way to go. By choosing “Susie” over the more-likely candidates, Verizon may be signaling that it’s counting on consumers to accept its brand as normative, too.
More about anachronistic fictional names here.