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X communication

Hot products and artists with 'X' in their names are everywhere - and it's no accident, say marketing experts

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff, 5/3/2003

Feeling cross-eyed lately? Suffering from chronic X-ray vision? Relax. It's not your optic nerves playing tricks. It's the cultural eye chart, rather, that's become fixated on one letter. And one letter only.

Glance at today's movie listings, and they look like one long string of canceled type. Everywhere and anywhere, ''X'' marks the spot. The same holds true for TV shows, video-game players, youth sports, rap artists, even antidepressants. Kids' names, car names, you name it: The 24th letter of the alphabet is No. 1 with a bullet. A pop-culture totem as ubiquitous as the V-for-victory sign was in Winston Churchill's day.

''X2: X-Men United,'' the movie sequel to ''X-Men'' (2000), based on the Marvel Comics series about a team of mutant superheroes, opened yesterday. A week ago saw the release of ''XX/XY,'' a film about three college students in a romantic menage a trois. (The title refers to male and female chromosomes, not the film's audience rating.)

Neither movie is to be confused (as if) with ''XXX,'' last year's spy flick starring Vin Diesel as agent Xander Cage, an extreme-sports buff. Or with the ''X-Files'' movie of 1998. Or the long-running Fox television series that inspired it. Or the Japanese anime film ''X,'' released in the United States a couple of years ago. Or the X-ecutioners, a hot new turntable group from New York.

If that's not exasperating enough to make you stand outside the cineplex scratching your cerebral cortex, put down your copy of Wine X (''a young adult lifestyle magazine'') and drive to the mall in your Nissan Xterra, listening to the latest CD by Christina (a.k.a. ''Xtina'') Aguilera, while your twins, Max and Alexa, play an Xbox video game based on the new movie ''The Matrix: Reloaded.''

Extraordinary? Not exactly.

''One reason you're seeing it everywhere is that `X' has several connotations, including mysterious, X-rated - meaning sexy - and anything `extreme,''' says Barbara Coulon, vice president of Youth Intelligence, a New York marketing firm that tracks youth-culture trends. ''It means pushing the limits, or even off-limits. You're seeing it tagged onto all sorts of stuff now, not just things like extreme sports.''

To Chad Farmer of Lambesis Inc., a California advertising agency with its own finger on the youth-culture pulse, ''X'' represents the ''intangible connection between the unknown, mortality, alienation, and ecstasy'' in postmodern America. Says Farmer, ''Marketers have increasingly employed the letter `X' to attribute almost mystical qualities to products they hope will then have greater appeal to a wide target.''

From alternative music (Xzibit, Sex Pistols) to cutting-edge sports (BMX bike racing, XFL football), from cool new technology (Mac OS X, Imax films) to designer drugs (Ecstasy, Xanax), says Farmer, the postboomer generation of 20- and 30-somethings - a generation highly coveted by advertisers - responds to anything ''X'' as signifying ''the promise of things yet to be discovered'' and the ''ecstasy of really `being alive.'''

Okaaay.

How did we get to this cultural crossroads? Coulon and others trace its origins back a decade or more to 1992, with the publication of ''Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture,'' Douglas Coupland's field guide to the post-baby boom generation. That same year brought Spike Lee's biopic ''Malcolm X'' and such minor artifacts as ''Xodus,'' a rap album by the group X-Clan (fronted by the artist known as Professor X, not to be confused with DJ Terminator X of Public Enemy, or X, the '80s West Coast punk band).

While Coupland renamed a whole generation, Lee repackaged the fiery civil-rights leader of the 1960s for mainstream audiences. The ''X'' baseball cap Lee wore promoting the film became a fashion statement. Three years later, in 1995, ESPN marked another Zeitgeist milestone when it aired the Extreme Games - since shortened to the X Games - and made daredevil sports such as snowboarding (now an Olympic competition) part of the mainstream, too.

Almost overnight, the letter ''X'' became a whole lot hipper than, say, Q or Z.

Generation X was named with echoes of ''Brand X'' in mind, a generation famously eschewing traditional product loyalties, says Boston University communications professor Susan Perinio. Ironically, its members are now watching their most cherished symbol turned into the Golden Arches of cultural cool.

''It's total synchronicity, like a school of fish all turning in the same direction at once,'' says Perinio of the current glut of ''X'' products. ''There's got to be some underlying law at work. I just have no idea what it is.''

James Twitchell does. A professor at the University of Florida, Twitchell is writing a book on the branding of culture.

''If you look at `X' as it's squirming its way around the pop-culture vocabulary, it's mostly shorthand for `extreme,''' he says. ''Thus it's a quick way to alert an audience exquisitely sensitive to edges that it's being paid attention to.''

According to Twitchell and others, the association with ''extreme'' is key. ''It signifies a product that's edgy, hard to move past, and highly caffeinated - and therefore a logical extension of where American culture and marketing have been moving for the past 50 years,'' says Twitchell.

Nissan's Xterra sports utility vehicle is one example. The name was chosen, says Nissan marketing manager John Cimbricz, to appeal to its target audience: ''adventurous, athletic, and confident males (age range 24-39) whose lifestyle and priorities are centered on the outdoors and physical activities.'' The ''X'' part, Cimbricz continues, ''conveys an attitude which coincides with their `no limits' philosophy.''

In another case of gilt by association, 21-year-old pop diva Aguilera recast herself last year as ''Xtina,'' an alter ego that tossed aside her sugar-coated, Mickey Mouse Club image for something raunchier. The release of her ''Dirrty'' music video and a bare-all cover shot for Rolling Stone drove home the message even more graphically that she was ''showing her true colors now,'' as Aguilera boasted in an interview in the magazine. In an earlier blending of the edgy and the holy, she had recorded a 2000 Christmas album with a track called ''Xtina's Xmas.'' Some fans found the tarting-up excruciating. ''Looks like Xtina should change her name to XXXtina,'' wrote Greg Overzat of the South Florida Sun-Sentinal.

Still, when a Jennifer Lopez rebrands herself as J.Lo, says Coulon, it's only logical that other pop stars follow suit. How better to outdo Madonna, moreover, than to adopt a name that simultaneously invokes ''Christ'' and Hustler magazine? ''A big part of youth culture today is abbreviation,'' says Coulon. ''When you combine that with `X,' it's very powerful. With the Xbox, for instance, you have a name that automatically promises incredible graphics beyond the normal.''

BU marketing professor Roberta Clarke agrees that symbolically, Aguilera may be up to something. It's no coincidence, Clarke says, that Gen Xers' desire to separate themselves from the baby boomers has inspired them to adopt a letter that implies cancellation. ''Aguilera may be using it the same way,'' says Clarke. ''To position herself not as a normal `Christina' but as somone more `now,' more today.''

In the meantime, Xander has become the trendy new nickname for Alexander, No. 12 on the Top 100 list of popular baby names for boys, as compiled by the US Social Security Administration. Also on the list: for girls, Alexis (No. 9), Alexandra (33), and Alexa (64) and for guys, Alex (54) and Xavier (83). When Xtina bumps off Christina (65), you'll know the naughtiness factor is officially toast.

Might ''X'' itself expire of overexposure? ''The concept won't be exhausted,'' Twitchell predicts. ''But yes, we'll move on to another letter of the alphabet eventually. Or to a different way of invoking the same thing.''

''I think people can keep their X's straight at the movie theater,'' says Clarke. More problematic is the aging of Generation X. As its members' in-your-face attitude softens, she says, so will their cultural influence - and the power of the X-factor.

To critics who assert that ''X'' means nothing and is ''purely an artifact of an overblown culture feeding upon itself,'' says Farmer, his reply is: How true. And so what? ''X'' still exerts a magnetic pull on a vast consumer audience, including members of Generation Y, the post-Xers.

''If one puts this all together in a big pot and stirs it enough,'' Farmer maintains, ''`X' can easily be with us for a while.'' And Y not?

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 5/3/2003.
© Copyright 2003 New York Times Co.


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