February 28th, 2006

Your Name Here

By Phil Kloer
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Never mind the old question of what’s in a name. These days, it’s how much for a name?

It used to be simple. A corporation bought a stadium or a football bowl game for umpteen million bucks and renamed it after itself. Thus did the Peach Bowl become the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and now finally just the Chick-fil-A Bowl — hold the Peach.

But the idea of planting your name somewhere, permanently, has spread throughout society like cultural kudzu — not just for companies, but for individuals. In Stephen King’s new No. 1 best-seller, "Cell," one of the characters, Ray Huizenga, is named after a real person. His sister Pam bought the rights in an eBay auction last year. (It cost her $21,000, and proceeds went to the First Amendment Project.)

Hey Ray, meet Macy Baby. Macy, a new gorilla at Zoo Atlanta (and granddaughter of Willie B.), is named for the Macy’s department store chain, which won naming rights in an auction last year for between $10,000 and $20,000.

"The world is becoming increasingly commodified," says Allen Tullos, associate professor of American studies at Emory University. "Everything is for sale.

"There’s this impulse people have: ‘Can I buy some immortality here?’ " he adds. And Tullos should know; nearly every building on Emory’s campus is named after someone who donated a ton of money. Nothing says immortal like an ivy-covered hall of academe.

Honoring financial benefactors may be as old as civilization, but people and companies keep coming up with new wrinkles. A few recent examples:

•Why settle for one baby gorilla, when you can name a whole species? For the past few years, a German company called Biopat has been selling naming rights to newly discovered species. (Scientists who discover the species donate the rights, and the money goes to conservation groups.) Husbands have named flowers after their wives as a romantic gift, although most species named are insects. Ellen DeGeneres tried to win an auction last year to name a new monkey species after herself but was outbid by the big-spending Las Vegas casino Golden Palace.

•The Kentucky Derby announced last month it will now be known as the Kentucky Derby Sponsored by Yum Brands. (Yum owns KFC and Taco Bell.) That was better than other possible derby sponsorships, some people suggested, such as Elmer’s Glue or Alpo. "It’s a shame that the Run for the Roses has been degraded into a run for junk food," says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an anti-commercialization advocacy group. "Next year, will the thoroughbreds run at Taco Bell Downs?"

•In November, the town of Clark, Texas (population 125), changed its name to DISH, Texas, to get free satellite TV service.

Although society is moving toward more name changes and sponsorships, there are still pockets of resistance. Post-Katrina New Orleans recently tried to defray part of its expenses for Mardi Gras (police overtime, cleanup, etc.) by selling sponsorship rights for $2 million. But despite aggressive attempts to make it "Mardi Gras Sponsored by Your-Name-Here," there were no takers. One theory is that a lot of potential sponsors, such as liquor companies, already pour a lot of money into their own marketing approaches at Mardi Gras time.

The trend toward selling naming rights to anything in the public sphere — arenas, parks, even school gymnasiums — needs to be resisted, argues Ruskin, whose Commercial Alert monitors commercialization in society.

"We’re turning our public properties into billboards for corporate self-promotion," he says.

But Craig Depken, who teaches sports economics at the University of Texas, says buying naming rights is "another form of advertising."

Adds John Reddish, president of Advent Management International, a consultancy firm: "It’s seen as self-serving, but demonstrates a commitment to the community."

Ruskin draws a distinction, however, between a company paying a city to change the name of a stadium and an individual paying a novelist for naming rights to a character.

The latter is becoming increasingly popular as a fund-raiser. In addition to King, John Grisham and Nora Roberts have done it, as has Kathy Hogan Trocheck, the former Atlanta mystery writer who now lives in North Carolina.

Decatur jeweler Mark Haddad won naming rights in a novel by Trocheck (writing as Mary Kay Andrews), "Savannah Blues," several years ago at the annual PTO fund-raising auction at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Decatur. He named the character for his wife, Denise, as a Valentine’s Day gift at a cost of $200.

"It’s kind of a way to live in infamy," he chuckles.

The city of Houston discovered that Haddad’s joke about infamy could be very real, when Enron, the company that bought the rights to the Astros stadium, entered its period of very public troubles. It’s now Minute Maid Park.

Closer to home, Georgia Tech got embroiled in a controversy in 1995 when it tried to strike a deal with McDonald’s to rename its basketball arena. Then-Attorney General Mike Bowers ruled the deal unconstitutional; it was renegotiated, then OK’d. Tech fans, meanwhile, attended games wearing paper Burger King hats, mocking the whole mess.

More recently, the trend has been for new arenas to be built and naming rights sold, without any renaming to rankle fans. The Dutch company Philips is paying Time Warner an estimated $168 million over 20 years to call the home of the Hawks and Thrashers, as well as many rock concerts, Philips Arena.

But with all that, it’s unclear whether any of this renaming benefits the companies that are paying for it. "There is scant evidence that — other than NASCAR — a sponsorship correlates with increased sales ... relative to other forms of advertising," says the University of Texas’ Depken.

On the other hand, if you name a dung beetle after a loved one, your return on your investment transcends mere finance.

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