August 25, 2008

Spread 'Em

hurst.jpgOn the night of Sunday August 3, actor Morgan Freeman and his passenger Demaris Meyer were involved in a serious car accident when Meyer’s 1997 Nissan Maxima rolled over in Tallahatchie County, Missisippi. Firefighters responded and Clay McFerrin, the editor of the Charleston Sun Sentinel was one of the first reporters on the scene.

Rescuers told McFerrin that the “Jaws of Life” were needed to extract Freeman and his companion from the automobile. McFerrin consulted the journalist’s bible, the AP Stylebook, which informed him that Jaws of Life is a trademark name and should be capitalized. Newspapers and television anchors around the country subsequently proclaimed that Morgan Freeman had to be “rescued from the car by the Jaws of Life.”

Except he wasn’t.

The Jaws of Life were invented in the 1960s by a man named George Hurst. Basically, they are heavy-duty, hydraulic-powered reverse pincers that push apart with great force, creating an opening in the metal so that rescuers can extract occupants from cars when the doors won’t open. The original was a giant device mounted on the back of a tow truck and was used primarily at automobile racetracks. Hurst began marketing a more portable version in the 1970s for use by fire departments, which, until then, had to cut people from roadside accidents with power saws. The Hurst tool was a major improvement over that method, primarily because it didn’t create sparks which could ignite a gasoline fire.

The marketing folks at Hurst, who in retrospect probably weren’t paid nearly enough, decided to call their instrument the “Hurst Jaws of Life,” invoking an image of accident victims being “snatched from the jaws of death” by their product.

There are now many companies around the world that manufacture such spreaders. In 2006 the engineering department at Texas A&M conducted a “comparative assessment” of six hydraulic rescue tool systems: Hurst, Holmatro, Amkus, Champion, TNT, and Phoenix. Although all the tools performed successfully, the Hurst Jaws of Life finished in the bottom two (along with Holmatro) in overall performance, and Hurst was rated dead last in affordability. Nevertheless, Hurst is still an industry giant with huge market share in the U.S.

While only the Hurst product can legally and officially be called the Jaws of Life, emergency responders and media people and laypersons frequently use “Jaws of Life” to refer to Hurst’s competitors. It’s become a common generic term for such products, just as Kleenex and Xerox have been over the years.

Corporate legal departments often find this broad usage a threat to their trademarks. In 2006 Google famously tried to discourage not just professional journalists but even bloggers from using the word “google” as a generic term referring to internet searches conducted on competing sites such as Yahoo!. On the company’s official blog, Google employee Michael Krantz wrote that this usage “is as distressing to our trademark lawyers as it is thrilling to our marketing folks…. You can only "Google" on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to "search" on Yahoo or any other search engine.” To say you are Googling with a competitor’s search engine, Krantz wrote, is “Bad. Very, very bad.”

The folks at Hurst, however, have a more laid-back approach. “If someone else tries to use our trademark commercially we will move to stop them,” said Aaron Guenther, Hurst’s Director of Marketing. “But if a news report says the “Jaws of Life” were used in a rescue, we know there’s a better than 50% chance it was our product. It doesn’t harm us a lot.”

Indeed the media’s love affair with the term is no doubt worth a fortune to Hurst in free publicity. Several weeks after the accident, a Google search (yes, an actual Google search) of the terms “Morgan Freeman” and “Jaws of Life” turned up almost 50,000 mentions. A search of news outlets alone returned thousands of results from around the world.

And it makes sense that the phrase is so popular with reporters.

The name “Jaws of Life” is widely recognized and extremely visual. Even if you’ve never seen the actual equipment, those three words paint a vivid and accurate picture of a powerful metal mouth, like an alligator’s, cutting and prying and stretching the body of an automobile. Just as important to reporters and headline writers, it sounds really cool. As the early Hurst marketing team had hoped, it creates an image of accident victims being “snatched from the jaws of death.” It’s a phrase that builds drama.

Maybe too much drama. Without diminishing the severity of the injuries sustained by Mr. Freeman, these rescue tools aren’t used only in life-or-death situations. By itself the fact that someone needed to be extracted from a car using the “Jaws of Life” doesn’t tell you anything about the severity of the accident, only that emergency responders were unable to open the door by the handle. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the injuries were serious or that the occupants’ lives were ever in jeopardy. “Sometimes they are used for very minor accidents,” one Chicago-area firefighter says. “It is such a situational thing when they are used.”

Notably, news reports rarely mention the use of any specific rescue equipment other than the Jaws of Life. If an early maker of oxygen tanks only had a flair for the dramatic we might be reading in the paper every other day that firefighters had to use the Breath of Angels to rescue nine-year-old girls from smoke-filled apartments. Kittens would be rescued from trees with the Rungs of Hope.

Hurst has been making this tool the longest and they have been building brand loyalty for more than thirty years. But it’s also reasonable to assume that one reason Hurst can charge more for its product (a full package for a municipal fire department might cost $20,000 or more) is that their Jaws of Life is the only one of these products that has widespread public brand name recognition, a fact at least in part due to the thousands of mentions it receives in the news each year. To protect against the news media being used as a marketing tool, the AP Stylebook instructs reporters and editors to avoid using trademarks whenever possible: “In general, use a generic equivalent unless the trademark is essential to the story.”

A spokesperson for the “AP Stylebook team” admitted that there are times when a reporter will be quoting a source who uses the phrase “Jaws of Life” generically, but he also warned against reporters making the same mistake. “Under the Stylebook definition, use of the trademark term “Jaws of Life” should be limited to the tool made by the manufacturer.”

A call to the Charleston Fire Department confirmed that the Hurst Jaws of Life were not used to extract Freeman and his companion from the car last month. If they couldn’t print “Morgan Freeman Saved By Jaws of Life” would the nation’s headline writers sound just as breathless with “Morgan Freeman Saved By Holmatro 4000 Series Hydraulic Spreader”?

It just doesn’t have the same punch.


Posted by Kevin Guilfoile


The generic-alternative headline may not have the same punch, but imagine a slight alternative phrasing: "Morgan Freeman Found In Car Using Holmatro 4000 Series Hydraulic Spreader". Now that's punch!

Holmatro 4000 Series Hydraulic Spreader?

I hardly know 'er!

Your running of the Holmatro picture upside down tips your hand: This is all just so much bloviation to pump up the brand recognition of the Jaws of Life and further marginalize scrappy newcomers like Holmatro.

Pretty clever, except you pushed it too far with that photo. Now your journalistic bias is clear to everyone! Admit it - you're getting paid off by William Randolph Hurst!

Amkus thought they had a winner with the "Amkus 250 Mandibles of Mercy", but it never caught on with more rural fire departments.

In other news:

So-called "round table discussions" are often held on rectangular tables.

(Nice work Kev!)

So-called "round table discussions" are often held on rectangular tables.

Interesting. I'll look into it.

I understand that there's a plank in the Dem platform that requires that all rescue agencies receiving federal funding use only the Jaws of Choice.

Hey, Bloggy, what're you doing, Blogging? Trying to make the rest of us look like idiots, eh? Why don't you calm down and post a LOLCat or something, all right? Jesus. That is, nice one.

I love this quotation: "It is such a situational thing when they are used."

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