San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center, a 1.2-million-square-foot hub for four Bay Area counties’ bus systems plus intercity Greyhound buses (and light rail, too, eventually), officially opened on August 11 to huge crowds. I skipped the festivities but heard rave reports from friends who'd gone, and so on August 13 I took an AC Transit bus from Oakland to San Francisco to see it for myself. I was not disappointed. Indeed, I was elated by the light-filled Grand Hall, the clear signage, the well-integrated public art, the pristine restrooms (every fixture is touchless), and the astonishing 5.4-acre rooftop garden, officially called Salesforce Park. (The software company bought the naming rights to the park and transit center in 2017; the adjacent 1,070-foot-tall Salesforce Tower, which opened earlier this year, is the tallest building in San Francisco.)
During the eight years of construction, I’d frequently driven beneath a filigreed white overpass that marked one of the center’s boundaries. While researching the completed center I learned that the filigree’s distinctive pattern has a name: Penrose tiling. And it’s not merely some designer’s fanciful grace note: it’s a mathematical marvel discovered in the 1970s and defended in a famous lawsuit.
Filigreed Penrose tiling outside the new transit center.
I had a little extra time before meeting a friend at SFMOMA to see the “Soundtracks” exhibit (highly recommended), so I took a detour through for the food court of the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, looking for interesting brands.
I scored right away. “Interesting” doesn’t even begin to describe Loving Hut.
There is a lot going on here.
This all-vegan fast-food café had just opened for the day and there was already a long line of customers. I stood to the side and marveled at the weird name – a cousin of Pizza Hut, maybe? – and that fantastically hideous logo.
It’s rare that a nonce word – a word invented for a single situation, also called an occasionalism – takes root in the language and continues to thrive centuries after its original use. But that’s the case with defenestration, which was created from Latin roots meaning “out the window” and which first appeared in English in 1619, a year after the Second Defenestration of Prague, in which “a group of Protestant Bohemian protestors threw two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary out of a window in Prague Castle, thus helping to precipitate the Thirty Years’ War” (source: OED).
The Second Defenestration of Prague, from a 1618 pamphlet. Source: Coins Weekly.
That’s right: the second defenestration. There have been three famous defenestrations in Prague, a city that is to window-ejecting as Paris is to guillotining. The first took place in 1419; the third, of the liberal Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk, was in 1948. (Masaryk’s death was officially ruled a suicide, but its circumstances remain suspicious. As the bitter joke had it: “Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself.”)
For more than three hundred years, defenestration was reserved for historical discussions and the odd open-window murder. Then, around 1955, defenestration began to be used figuratively, much like dethrone, to describe “the dismissal or removal of a person from a position of power or authority” (OED again). And that – with one striking exception – is how we’ve been seeing it during the last month or so.
In the last two and a half years, Thumbtack, which matches customers with local service professionals, has raised $255 million in funding. If the company had spent the merest fraction of that sum on a professional copywriter with an elementary understanding of how advertising works, it could have come up with something more effective than this existential shrug of a billboard.
“We don’t know.” <Shrug> 8th and Harrison streets, San Francisco
It’s not that I don’t get the tiny, unconvincing joke, O Hipster Ad Agency. Nothing rhymes with orange. Haha.
Here’s the thing (and it pains me to have to point this out):
Billboards are meant to grab your attention in a split-second. They’re not supposed to be convoluted in-jokes. They’re supposed to sell.
And they’re supposed to sell your stuff. Not roses, not “this billboard,” not even florists or poets. If you’re Thumbtack, you want people who see your ad to grok the glories of Thumbtack.
At the risk of repeating myself: We don’t know? Are you effing kidding me? Your website says you’re “reshaping local economies.” You’re “getting things done.” If you don’t know, who does?
And finally: Why is the most important message – “Hire skilled pros for absolutely everything” – in the tiniest type?
A good ad should make you smile in instant recognition. It should be memorable and motivational. It should leave you with a positive impression of the advertiser.
It shouldn’t make you feel like your soul’s been sucked out of your body and sacrificed to the gods of snark.
Join me at Strong Language today, where I’ve published a post about a phrase in a sign that appeared on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) last week. The sign was fake (but looked authentic); the phrase was an imperative that included a four-letter word that’s common in speech but uncommon in official pronouncements. I write about the phrase and its history – not very ancient, it turns out – and about GYST, the acronym formed from the phrase. Language-of-commerce connection: GYST is also the name of a couple of U.S. companies.
This is the top half of a full-page ad for Salesforce Tower that appeared in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle.
From the Wikipedia entry: “Salesforce Tower, formerly known as the Transbay Tower, is a 1,070 ft (326 m) supertall office skyscraper under construction in the South of Market district of downtown San Francisco.” It was built on spec; naming rights went to Salesforce.com after the cloud computing company leased 714,000 square feet and became the building’s anchor tenant.
The headline of the ad isn’t much of a headline at all. It’s cribbed directly from Oxford Dictionaries (syllabification, phonetics, definition, and example sentence) and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (synonyms). As reading material, it’s boring. As an advertising strategy, it is as shopworn and ineffective as that ancient device of the inexperienced public speaker who opens with “The dictionary defines community as …” As logic, it’s a fallacy called argumentum ad dictionarium – “the act of pulling out a dictionary to support your assertions” – and it’s cleanly eviscerated on RationalWiki.
Dictionary-definition copy is lazy. It’s unpersuasive. It doesn’t convey a distinction or a benefit; it doesn’t evoke an emotion or express a call to action. It borrows authority rather than staking its own claim.
It’s hard to stay clean when you’re sleeping on the streets. A new San Francisco nonprofit, Lava Mae, has an ingenious remedy: transforming old Muni buses into mobile bathrooms, complete with stall showers and toilets, that travel to neighborhoods with the greatest need.
Lave Mae and its founder, former public-relations executive Doniece Sandoval, were featuredin the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week on the occasion of the unveiling of Bus No. 2. Sandoval’s plans include expansion throughout California.
“Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.” For more on the “One X at a Time” sloganclone, seethis 2012 post(and follow the links for more).
According to the Chronicle story:
Lava Mae’s simple solution of providing homeless people with showers and toilets has captured the attention of people around the world, many of whom have asked Sandoval to help them create a similar program.
To deal with the huge interest, Sandoval is working with the International Centre for Social Franchising, which is based in London but also has an office in San Francisco. It seeks to help organizations with a social benefit replicate their work in other places around the world.
Sandoval has decided to focus on serving 30,000 homeless people around California by 2020 — and recently met with state Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles to discuss a Lava Mae-type program there.
There’s a feel-good story behind the Lava Mae name, too. Here’s how the organization’s website tells it (verbatim):
In Spanish, “lavame” means “wash me”
In our culture, we refer to vehicles in the feminine as in, “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
In the South, (where our founder grew up), it’s not uncommon for people to have two first names e.g Billy Bob, Peggy Sue. Putting it all together gave birth to the name Lava Mae
OK, the copy needs some, um, cleaning up. If you want to be picky about it – hey, it’s in my job description! – it’s “lávame,” with an acute accent to mark the stress on the first syllable. And I cringed a little at the bio that reads “Brett is the principle and founder of StudioTerpeluk.”
I’ll stop quibbling now and instead reaffirm that I like the Lava Mae name: it’s friendly, personal, down-home, clever, and bilingual. (The echoes of Fannie Mae and Sallie Mae, which also aim to help people in need, may be intentional.) And I applaud the work Lava Mae is doing. In a region dominated by whiz-kid techpreneurs whose idea of “making the world a better place” is selling an app that does stuff your mom used to do for you, this is a truly creative and, yes, disruptive initiative.