Three Babies and a Web Site

I don’t believe in reincarnation. That’s too bad, because I’d like to be around in a thousand years or so when a more highly evolved human race pokes through our dismal digital remains and concludes that we were clearly out of our minds.

Just as some of our contemporaries blame the decline of the Roman Empire on lead dinner plates, future anthropologists may wonder if a chemical in the green ink on money is what drove some humans in the year 2000 to name their children after a Web site.

Tabloid Fodder

If I didn’t see it on a host of reliable news outlets, I wouldn’t have believed it. But sure enough, Travis and Jessica Thornhill of Hutchinson, Kansas have given their second child the first name “Iuma.”

“Iuma” is an acronym for the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA), a Web site that features the music of Iuma’s proud papa and other unsigned artists. In exchange, the couple got $5,000 (US$). The boy’s father said the money will go to good use, with half being put away for the child’s future college education.

I’m not interested in picking on the Thornhills. According to IUMA — the Web site, not the seven pound baby — at least three other couples have come forward with offspring bearing the same name. The company isn’t paying out until it sees the birth certificates. (Incidentally, if you’re expecting soon, it’s not too late. The firm will give $5,000 cash to up to 10 babies bearing its name.)

I am fascinated by the people who dreamt this up. There is cause and effect here, and someone is leading us down a dark, dreary road. Maybe I’m unenlightened, but a name is a fairly important thing as you move through life. Most people have names with some kind of family history or personal meaning behind them.

Name Game

But in America, 2000, naming rights are all the rage. Recently, dot-coms got into the act, putting up big money to slap their names on sports stadiums and arenas. In the ultimate display of naming rights gone amok — up until now — a town in Oregon that was previously known as “Halfway” has officially renamed itself “Half.com” after the Web site that allows people to sell used stuff.

Okay, as a publicity stunt this little name game is working. And yes, the children can always change their names when they get older and the money has been safely spent. Sure, they can simply use their more, um, pronounceable middle names. So maybe it’s all harmless fun.

Except that it seems to be escalating. Dot-coms are supposedly spending less money each quarter on marketing and advertising because their one-time river of cash has slowed to a trickle. The tightening of the purse strings should be forcing startups and established companies alike to be smarter about things, to choose marketing programs that work.

Instead, things are going the other way. IUMA is prepared to lay out $50,000 for a stunt that will probably give it a few bright hot seconds of exposure.

Selling a Tradition

It’s ironic, really. In Boston, there was a huge outcry when someone suggested that to help pay for their proposed new baseball stadium, the Red Sox consider selling the naming rights to what had always been billed as the “new Fenway Park.” Die-hards threatened boycott and protest, saying that to push aside nearly 100 years of tradition would be a crime.

Something tells me those people are not the target for name-game stunts. Given IUMA’s mission, the Web site’s target is younger people, fans of alternative and underground music. Napster made its name with that crowd — at least before lawsuits and disputes gave the company a ton of free press — through viral marketing. Free viral marketing.

Picking Our Bones

Maybe IUMA’s gimmick will work. Maybe the publicity will spark enough of a viral marketing barrage that “IUMA” will be a household name by the time the first little Iuma toddles off to pre-school. But did the company have to lower our collective standards as a society to get it done? Because that’s just what IUMA did. It put a price tag on something that really ought to be out of bounds for simple reasons of moral decency.

Nothing is off limits any more. Susan, one of the last four castaways on the TV show “Survivor,” said it best. After a month of eating bugs and chasing away rats in the hope of winning $1 million, she flatly stated, “Money is what it’s all about.”

Maybe we should put a copy of that sound bite into a time capsule along with young Iuma Thornhill’s birth certificate. It might help those puzzled anthropologists in the year 3000 figure out what all the craziness was about.

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