Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marketing Newspeak in Everyday Conversations: Playpen or Play Yard

I recently had a conversation with some friends that went basically like this:

Friend: "My baby is outgrowing the bassinet. I think it's time to put him in a crib."
Culdesachero: "I guess he's growing."
F:"Yeah, it's a lot sooner than with our first. We didn't move her until she was X months old."
C: "Oh really, interesting."
F:"Of course, with her we didn't move her directly into the crib."
C: "Where did you move her?"
F:"Well, she moved to the play yard first."
C: "You had her sleeping, like, on the floor?"
F: (Slightly indignant) "No, of course not. It was in the play yard."
C: "I'm sorry, what do you mean by play yard?"
F:"It's a square thing you put the kid in so they don't get hurt. But this has extra sleeping and change table attachments."
C: "Oh, so it sounds just like the playpen we had for ours."
F:"Yeah, but they're also called play yards."
"Sorry, when I think of a play yard, I think of those little fences with gates where you just go in." making little gate-swinging motion.
F:"No. A play yard has a floor..."
C: "I guess a couple of years makes a big difference in the language."
F: Scoffs.
C: "It's still called a playpen. No matter what the marketing geniuses try to rebrand their product as. It sounds like they're just trying to separate the idea that you're penning your child in there like a dog."
F: "huh? That's just what they call it."
C: Cheekily, "It's CALLED a playpen. You don't have to invent new words. The word already exists."
F: "Well, at least you're open minded about it."
C: Laughing, "That's me, Mr. Open-minded."

Inside, I was facepalming like mad. If I hadn't deflected the conversation in a lighthearted, self-deprecating, "I'm-so-stuck-in-my-ways" manner to let everyone know that I understand that it's not really a big deal, this could have gotten pretty heated. Still, the point was made, although, I'm sure some participants and observers are of the opinion that I'm just a jerk.

Child exercising in "The Yard"
Do I take life too seriously? It amazes me how people accept corporate re-branding and renaming things that have existed for centuries with so little thought. Am I the only one bothered by this? Three years ago, nobody would have equated the terms playpen and play yard. Now, because my friends either read about play yards somewhere in some corporate-sponsored articles or talked to a slick saleperson who insisted on calling them play yards instead of playpens, they've completely erased the term playpen with this newspeak term play yard at the behest of marketing executives. (Yes, I really think about these things.)
I've never looked at one of these things and said, "Wow, look at that yard for babies to play in". I've never met a baby who liked to play in one regardless of the term used to describe it, but that's besides the point. The definition of yard means basically, a tract of ground next to, surrounding, or surrounded by a building or buildings, ofen enclosed. Whereas, a pen is defined as a fenced enclosure for keeping animals. This does not mean that pens have floors, but the definition of yard specifically mentions the word ground. So, pen may or may not have a floor, while a yard can not have a floor (other than the ground). Therefore, play yard is an incorrect term for a device with a floor designed to safely, temporarily confine and hopefully entertain small children while mom and dad are busy, but within earshot. But, you say, this is for indoors. Ah, I guess I'll give you that, but if you were to extend the definition of yard to an enlosed indoor area, the floor of the room would become proxy for the ground in that case, meaning you can call an enclosed area of floor could rightly be called a pen or a yard, a playpen that keeps the child off of the floor could not be called a yard.

Wikipedia currently has the following definition:
A playpen is a piece of furniture in which an infant or young toddler (typically those less than 35" tall and 30 lbs) is placed to prevent self-harm when her/his parent or guardian is occupied or away. The earliest use of the word "playpen" cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1902. More recently they have also been called "playards".
Recently(?) they have also been called playards????  Try, recently, a marketers have tried to remove the negative connotations of penning children like pigs, replacing it with the notion that they can be let "out" into the "yard" as if for fresh air.  I'm sure Lenore Skenazy could have some spin on this.  I mean, parents are being reported to police for letting their children play unattended in their own back yards.  Could this be the "yard" of the future?

I can picture the smarmy salesman speaking to the soon-to-be parent:
Mom-to-be: "But, I would never confine my child in a pen like a pig or a dog!"
Smarmy Salesman: "Of course not, madam, that's why you should consider our newest line of play YARDS for your precious ones. They'll enjoy the yard while you do their laundry or heat up their Kraft Dinner."
Mom-to-be: "Oh, well if you put it that way."

Makers of playpens have always had to deal with the notions of these insensible people who can't decipher between keeping an animal in a pen and confining your child to a safe place for short periods of time while you take care of important personal and household matters. The term pen always holds these connotations and, in the mind of marketers, prevents sales from reaching their full potential. So, they've invented a new word and are doing their best to wipe the old, more accurate, term off the face of the earth. When I google playpen, I get over 6,000,000 hits and images are fairly uniformly of playpens. "Play Yard" in quotes gets just under 3,000,000 and images vary widely between playpens and outside yards suitable for play. What we are witnessing is a corporate sponsored shifting point between these two terms. Nobody is much bothered by it except people like me who actually feel meaning behind words is important and who resist new expressions that loose accuracy. Granted, PLAYpen is using the word "play" fairly liberally, since all most kids do in them is scream to be let out.

Since the PC cleansing of our language that replaced such horrible terms as fireman, manhole cover and retarded with more inclusive or pleasant sounding firefighter, maintenance hole cover and developmentally delayed, we have become primed for such language adjustments. Strangely, it bothers me less that fireman has been changed to firefighter because at least the term does not conflict with its meaning. I'll still say fireman or firefighter interchangeably, but, I will not say play yard for a child containment device that has a raised floor.

Such conflicting terms have always bothered me, even before I finally completed Orwell's 1984 and learned more about the purpose and origin of Newspeak. It bothers me regardless of the motivations (power, money, goodwill). But, what truly disturbs me, is the ease with which the new words are accepted by people. I have this alarm in my brain that goes off whenever I see or hear something that conflicts with my previously held truths. If you tell me that something is blue and opaque and it is obvious to me that it is clear and yellow, my internal-conflic alarm will go off and I'll be forced to call you on your misconception. You cannot then say to me, "Let's agree to compromise and meet half-way. Perhaps it is green and transluscent." There is no perhaps about it. I can see that it is yellow and I can see through it clearly. There is no discussion. Your assessment is incorrect. As Winston Smith said, 2 + 2 = 4.

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