A new birth-control product, Phexxi, was the subject of a long story in the New York Times Styles section on June 10. “The pill helped start the sexual revolution,” reads the headline. “What will Phexxi do?”
What is Phexxi? According to the product website, Phexxi is a nonhormonal vaginal gel that “works to prevent pregnancy by altering the pH of your vagina, which is different from hormonal birth control.” Its primary ingredients are lactic acid, citric acid, and potassium bitartrate (the last ingredient is better known, at least to cooks, as “cream of tartar”). In May 2020, Phexxi filed for trademark protection and received FDA approval; the product went on sale in the US in September 2020. An ad campaign—notably a 60-second video that urges women to “get past your compromises and get Phexxi”—launched in early February 2021.
Screen grab from the 60-second ad
Does Phexxi work? Its parent company, Evofem Biosciences (“Science with a Soul”), says that in clinical trials “with perfect use,” the gel is 93 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. As for the Phexxi name—well, let’s talk about it.
As recently as May 2019, Phexxi was called Amphora—the Greek word for a type of two-handled vase whose relevance to the product is obscure, at least to me. Amphora had been developed by a company called EvoMed that had little success bringing it to market. Then, in 2015, EvoMed spun off its women’s-health division and put a dynamic (to put it mildly) CEO, Saundra Pelletier, in charge. Amphora became Phexxi: “the first two letters represent pH and the double X is for the sex chromosome,” according to the Times article.
Mystery solved, sort of. But pH + xx could have yielded a different result: Phyxx or Phoxxy or ePhexx, for starters. Phexxi does a couple of things those alternatives don’t:
- It suggests effect(ive). The /fex/ syllable shows up in at least three other pharmaceutical names: Effexor (antidepressant), Effexin (antibiotic for ear infections), Effexis (respiratory inhaler). Omitting the initial E from Phexxi helps distinguish it from those other products. (Phexxi is available by prescription only.)
- It rhymes with sexy, which is almost certainly no coincidence.
Whenever I see the commercial for Phexxi, all I can think is "f'n sexy" even though I'm sure the name has something to do with "pH". Probably. How long will it be before my husband snaps and tells me to stop saying it out loud in my " mocking sexy voice".— sharky (@sharkbaitdz) June 4, 2021
The company has occasionally made the connection overt.
“Sexx”: Phexxi Instagram account, June 2, 2021
Phexxi is not an especially sexy name, though. It looks like something from Klingon or Na’vi. It’s a little too close to vex and fix (or, dare I say it, fucks). The ph phoneme strikes the native-English-reader’s eye as too classical (it’s a transliteration of Greek phi, after all) or too clinical to have much sensory appeal. (Who can forget pHisohex, the anti-acne cleanser?) Double-X may signify “female chromosomes,” but it’s also an orthographic cliché in branding, from Exxon to Maxxam to FXX.*
But Phexxi has redeeming virtues. See that winsome, winking little i at the end? Now you’ve got yourself a saucy girl’s name—a Fifi, a Lexi, a Trixi. And suddenly the XX in Phexxi starts looking hot: a double-X rated name for a sexxy brand.
And to its credit, Phexxi isn’t descriptive—remember, that’s a good thing—and in its odd, grating way, it’s distinctive: Unlike “Amphora” and many other contraceptive names (Mirena, Skyla, Seasonique, Aviane, Lutera, et al.), Phexxi isn’t trying to sound moon-June-spoon romantic. To women in the target demographic (age 18 to 34), that may make the name seem bold and refreshing.
Like the company’s fiercely tough CEO, Phexxi has some sharp edges. And it’s possible that those edges will cut through in a competitive marketplace.
* There is, however, a recent “XX” trend in baby naming that may be relevant here. In 2019, the Nancy’s Baby Names blog (no relation to yours truly) noted the rise of names like Sixx, Moxxie, Jaxxson, and many others.