The Nation's Pulse

Branding Up Baby

Stumped on a name for your child? Just hire a consultant.

By 6.29.07

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Names: great equalizers in a world where none of us start with the same talents or resources. But all of us know hundreds of names -- names we love, hate, or don't even understand. When it comes to naming our own children, we shouldn't need much help, right?

Wrong, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Alexandra Alter, "The Baby-Name Business," which provides the latest evidence that Americans are slowly going mad. It describes the emergence of baby-name "consultants," who charge fees to addled couples whose personalities have shrunken to the point that they can no longer perform one of the most personal acts in life without assistance. Instead, they do what every good business does when it has a problem: call the experts!

It's not clear how many parents are using such services, but judging by the popularity of baby-name websites and books -- over 80 of the latter have appeared, Alter says, just in the last three years -- there is a market out there. And besides, she notes, "sociologists and name researchers" are seeing "unprecedented levels of angst among parents trying to choose names for their children."

There is plenty of angst in Alter's piece. "'It's so overwhelming, it's hard to know where to start,' says Patricia Martin of Williston, Vt., who is expecting a baby in September." Good lord. She's overwhelmed already!

Most people, I'd guess, consult a source or two when a child is on the way. I've looked at some lists on the web myself. There are lots to choose from -- Biblical names, traditional ethnic names, historical names, names from literature and the arts, newfangled names, and more. What's new is that some parents are actually paying strangers to help them make this decision, instead of arriving themselves at the name that seems right, and that likely has meaning for that reason. You wonder if they understand that naming the kid is the easy part.

Alter's article is worth quoting at length, if only to remind yourself that there are people like this in the world, and that you are not one of them. For example:

-- "Madeline Dziallo, 36, a beautician and mother of two in LaGrange, Ill.," hired a "nameologist" who charged "up to $350 for a package including three half-hour phone calls and a personalized manual describing the name's history, linguistic origins and personality traits." Said Mrs. Dziallo: "She was an objective person for me to obsess about it with rather than driving my husband crazy," which assumes her husband didn't defenestrate when he saw the cost, or that he hasn't already been separated from his wits by a woman who worried that she might call the nameologist "from the delivery room."

-- "Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn't want their son to be 'one of five Ashtons in the class,' says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a 'cool' name that would help his son stand out. 'An unusual name gets people's attention when you're searching for a job or you're one in a field of many,' he says."

He sounds like he'll be a cracker barrel of laughs as a father. He's already thinking about the kid's job interviews.

The consultant unveiled a perfectly insane choice: Evander Jet. The Stones say that friends and family were surprised, which is not surprising. "Everybody was like, 'Oh, you named him after the boxer,' when actually it's a really old name," Mrs. Stone said. It's unlikely that there will be five Evander Jets in the class, though betting on that would be foolish.

-- "As one of the founders of Catchword, a corporate naming firm with offices in New York and Oakland, Calif., Burt Alper says he and his wife, Jennifer, who also works in marketing, felt 'tons of pressure' to come up with something grabby....They chose Beckett for their six-month-old son, a name the Alpers thought sounded reliable and stable.

"'That C-K sound is very well regarded in corporate circles,' Mr. Alper says, giving Kodak and Coca-Cola as examples."

Well, what's good enough for the Board is good enough for the baby! Little Beckett seems destined for existentialism with a father who thinks like this.

But then, as Alter writes, "even parents who are professional name consultants say the decision can be wrenching." Naturally. After all, even doctors and therapists have to go for treatment.

"THE CHIEF REASON FOR the paralysis," Alter writes, "is too much information." But that confuses the symptom with the cause, and assumes these parents would somehow be normal if there were fewer baby-name books, no consultants, and no Internet (which gets blamed for pretty much everything). Other forces are at work, though.

Alter quotes Bruce Lansky, author of eight books on baby names: "People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you're giving your child a head start." And here I thought it was good parenting and maybe some education thrown in.

Lansky's statement, like those of some of the parents, demonstrates the penetration of corporate culture and marketing into every nook of personal life. Job seekers on the web routinely come across articles on how to "brand" themselves for the marketplace, but apparently for some, that process can't start soon enough. We should brand babies, too. It makes me wonder if corporate names for babies aren't far off -- after all, we name our ballparks that way already. Companies could buy naming rights to children, and in a decade or so we could all read about "top corporate baby names." The only drawback is that this would hurt the name consultants -- the boot of big business, crushing the little guy again!

When consumerism is unchecked by other priorities, it tends to make commodities of even the most personal things. Some people are comfortable thinking about their deepest choices in ways not immediately distinguishable from the way they think about iPods or cell phones. And the market is responding accordingly.

Such happens when a culture loses its anchors. Alter writes, "As family names and old religious standbys continue to lose favor, parents are spending more time and money on the issue and are increasingly turning to strangers for help."

In Alter's 2,500-word article, there is one instance of a couple fleetingly considering a family name. Otherwise, no one seems interested in naming a child after a parent, a grandparent, or a friend. Nor, for that matter, is there interest in a name bearing some religious, cultural, or historical significance -- babies were once frequently named after presidents or generals -- or for the beauty of a name, or for the meaning of a name. Instead, the search is about what is hot and "unique," what will help "brand" the child as a competitive product in the global economy.

"I wanted a name that would look good on a marquee or a political banner," says one parent. (She should try the "C-K" sound. It's very respected in corporate circles.) For parents like these, the child is apparently another "lifestyle choice," like buying a home or a car -- for which consulting with professionals is the norm.

Alter says that experts in the field disagree about whether the current vogue of unusual names will continue, or if traditional names will mount a comeback. It doesn't matter much to the name consultants, since they can support both trends. And it doesn't matter much to parents, either: once people start outsourcing their most personal decisions, what they actually decide is secondary.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.