Heartwood Web Design
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Toxic Waste Irony — a comment on branding

Posted by Marian Buchanan on January 15th, 2011

I hardly ever eat candy, never even heard of Toxic Waste ® brand candies, so this doesn't affect me directly. But, as a subscriber to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) health alert newsletters, I received information about the recall of some of the brand's chew bars and couldn't resist commenting on the irony of the brand's name.

Not the "waste" part of it -- on which I can't comment one way or another -- but the fact that the recall of all flavours of Nuclear Sludge ® chew bars (another fine choice of names!) was due to finding toxic levels of lead in the cherry flavour. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the tolerance level at 0.1 parts per million (ppm). The levels found in the samples reached 0.24 ppm, almost two and a half times the tolerance level.

As a design & communications professional, I ponder the decision to use the toxic waste and nuclear sludge imagery in the first place. Appealing to an audience of young, disillusioned, skull-wearing rebels who envision their future as an inevitably post-apocalyptic world? Judging by their colourful website, cartoon characters, and page of environmental tips, it would not appear so. So maybe going for the "gross is funny" factor in the for-kids market. Or just counting on verbal irony to make people think the products are fantastic and healthy if they're being named toxic?

Whatever the case, the situational irony remains: when what was meant to be ironic turns out to be true, the original verbal irony not only fails, it actually highlights the damning truth, much more so than if the brand name was unrelated to the concepts of health and safety. And that can't be good for sales.

So maybe that's something to keep in mind if you're starting a new business and deciding on a name and branding concepts. Is there any intentional irony in your choices? If so, what would result if the irony failed? What would it do to your company's reputation?

Some people think any publicity is good publicity, but do you really want to count on that? In these days of viral social-media word-of-mouth, people count on peer recommendations and warnings to decide what to go for and what to steer way from. Situational irony may get your brand name out there, but not necessarily in the way you want.

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    About Marian Buchanan

    Marian Buchanan is the owner of Heartwood Web Design. She is fascinated by image and perception, immersed in both the artistic and technical sides of design and communications, and passionate about ethics and ethical marketing.

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