When a Pun Doesn’t Work

Put on your customer hats, guys, and follow me!

As I write this, I’m enjoying the contents of a 2 oz. bag of Deep River Mesquite BBQ potato chips. They are delicious. I don’t often buy Deep River snacks, so maybe it’s been a while since the bags first sported a new slogan and I just wasn’t aware until today. But now I’m aware of the slogan, and I have a problem with it.

The slogan is “Because We Give a Chip!” (If the ® is to be believed, the slogan is a registered trademark. That’s actually important. I’ll tell you why in a minute.)

First let me tell you, briefly, why I’m qualified to have an opinion about a punny slogan registered as a trademark: I am the senior copywriter for a very large company, and a significant part of my job is writing puns. I write more than my boss would prefer, but I do get paid to craft plays on words. I am also a lawyer with particular knowledge of and experience with intellectual property matters, including trademarks. But enough about me.

If I don’t know that “chip” is supposed to make me think of “shit,” then I don’t understand the slogan.

At my job, we have a rule about puns: A pun must work on both levels to be effective as a marketing device. That is, if you read a punny phrase, it has to mean something even if you don’t get the pun — or even recognize that there is one. If a pun doesn’t work with the pun turned off, so to speak, it will be confusing to the customer.

“Because We Give a Chip!” fails this test. The obvious pun is in the word “chip,” standing in for “shit,” evoking the phrase “[to] give a shit,” meaning [to] care.” Deep River is trying to say, “Because We Give a Shit [our products are good]!” while (1) keeping only the hint of a bad word, and (2) mentioning the actual product the company sells.

I admit that I laughed when I first read the slogan. But then I almost immediately felt bad for whomever was proud to have thought of it. Another thing we try to do where I work is “put on our customer hat”—read our copy as if we were the target audience. Wearing the hat of a chip customer who doesn’t get puns, I read the slogan again. If I don’t know that “chip” is supposed to make me think of “shit,” then I don’t understand the slogan as a sentence. It doesn’t mean anything, even if taken literally. How is Deep River giving [me] a chip? Is there a free chip in the 2 oz. bag? Which one is it? Is it the burned one? (Contrast Kmart’s 2013 “Ship My Pants” campaign. Even if you didn’t hear “…shit my pants,” you’d still hear “I just shipped my pants.”)

As an IP law-talking guy, I pay attention to indicia as well as the words and logos and marks that those indicia follow. And when I see ®, I know that some time, effort, and money has been invested in a trademark. There’s a reason why most slogans carry either a ™ or no indicia at all: Slogans are typically short-lived. By the time the registration application paperwork has been submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, an examiner has made a determination, and a mark has been published for opposition… a slogan’s shelf life has ended. But the presence of ® tells me that Deep River has been using this slogan for not a short amount of time, and also that it plans to continue to use it for some time to come. That’s too bad.

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