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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2001 / 15 Kislev, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports

100 Percent Solutions -- I GOT a mail-order catalog the other day from a company that specializes in various home and health-care products. At least they used to call them products, but now that word has been entirely elimiated from their catalog in favor of the word solutions. You can find seat cushions in the section on "stress relief solutions," bathrobes in "spa care solutions," and support bras in "intimate apparel solutions."

The "solutions" game began in the early 1980's, when companies like IBM started using the word to describe the packages of hardware, software, and services they were selling to corporate customers. In a sense it's just a new way of pitching your offerings as answers to customers' needs and anxieties, in the time-honored tradition of ring-around-the-collar and the heartbreak of psoraisis.

Except that the word solutions makes its point in a proactive way.

In the old days, when people said "I've got a solution for you" you assumed that somebody had mentioned a problem somewhere along the line. Now the two have come unhitched -- solutions aren't solutions for anything anymore.

When you do a search on solutions at the Web site of Compaq or Apple Computer, you find that it's anywhere from two to three times as frequent as the word problems. Business people don't like to hear someone talk about "problems." It seems to betray a negative mindset -- if there are difficulties you absolutely have to mention you try to find another name for them. As in "We had a number of challenges this quarter," or "There are several known issues installing the beta release of the printer driver."

By now there are hundreds of firms that have incorporated the word solutions into their company names, and by no means all of them are high-tech. There's the beachwear maker Sun Solutions, which is not to be confused with Solar Solutions, which sells propane ranges and composting toilets. Ondeo Solutions builds sewage-treatment facilities. And then there's Bright Horizons Family Solutions, an outfit that manages corporate daycare centers, whose portfolio presumably includes story-hour solutions and snack solutions, not to mention nap solutions for clients with crankiness issues.

It's hard to think of a company that couldn't say it was in the solutions business now. "Smuckers, your toast-coating solutions provider." In fact, one reason why so many companies are sticking the word solutions into their names is that they don't have to let on as to what they're actually selling, particularly if they're still in the embarrasing position of making things. Things have low margins and high capital costs. They're expensive to ship, they lead to liability lawsuits, they get you in trouble with the EPA. If you make them domestically you have to deal with unions. If you make them overseas, people get on your back for running sweatshops.

It's no wonder the manufacturing sector is a diminishing part of the American economy. In 1950, material goods made up more than half the GDP, now they account for less than a quarter of it. And companies that aren't in a position to stop making things altogether can at least relabel them as solutions. It suggests that their products are just an ancillary sideline of their real business, like the terrycloth slippers they throw in when you go for a massage.

That's the beauty of solutions -- companies don't have to tip their hands. It's a perfect complement for those empty corporate names that marketing consultants paste together out of strings of chopped-up syllables. Take the Ohio outfit called Omnova Solutions. What line of work would you say they're in -- Client-server applications? Healthcare benefits administration? Fabric transfers and decorative wall coverings? As it happens it's the last of those, but the others are just as plausible. These aren't like those old-fashioned corporate names that were designed to conjure up an image of a real product made by a real company. You feel sorry for the members of a softball team who have to take the field with "Omnova Solutions" written on their uniforms.

Names like these are attempts to create pure brands, free signifiers that float in the ether ready to light on anything that somebody's willing to pay for. That's what the new economy comes down to, in the end -- just one big intersection with people at every corner holding signs that say "Will solve for cash." evil.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg, is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Geoffrey Nunberg