Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Has 'Gone wild' been tamed?
Note: A version of this post appears in the most recent issue of the newsletter of the Amercian Copy Editors Society. Don't get the newsletter? Join ACES and you will.

At the ACES conference in Cleveland earlier this year, I saw a TV advertisement asserting that Chevrolet dealers in the area had "gone wild" and were offering good prices on cars and trucks — deals so good that they bordered on reckless. The pitch included the winking narration and lilting Caribbean music heard on ads for "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

The car ad never said "you won't believe what these dealers will do," but the connection was clear. The "gone wild" phrase had nearly trickled down to the level where it began. Now that the "gone wild" description has become so common as to be picked up by Ohio car dealers, does that mean it has lost its utility? Has "gone wild" gone stale?

The "Girls Gone Wild" video series, started in the late 1990s, features young women exposing themselves, often in public places such as bars, the beach and Mardi Gras parades. The series, heavily advertised on late-night television, has made a rich man of its founder, Joe Francis. The counterpart “Guys Gone Wild” debuted in 2004.

Because of the popularity of the series and the saturation of the advertising, "Girls Gone Wild" seeped into mainstream culture. Even those who have never seen one of the videos or the ads knows that a girl "gone wild" is a person out of control, impetuous, skirting the edges of acceptable and legal behavior.

As the phrase entered the language, it was picked up by copy editors. It’s inspired headlines such as these:
  • "FEMA GONE WILD," reported the Philadelphia Daily News in a story about how Katrina survivors used federal aid to buy alcohol, tickets to sporting events and, yes, "Girls Gone Wild" videos. The San Francisco Chronicle and Palm Beach Post used the same headline with opinion pieces on the topic.
  • In a blog post, the editorial board of the Wichita Eagle told readers to "Get ready for gerrymandering gone wild."
  • U.S. News and World Report had a cover story on "books gone wild." The story focused on issues of fabrication and plagiarism.
As headline writers, we shouldn't be shy about weaving in references to popular culture. Phrases from movies, television and music can provide a fresh way to describe a situation. They also allow headline writers to connect to readers, to let them know that we, too, are plugged into what’s going on.

Like puns in headlines, these references work best when they clearly reflect the content of the story. That’s why the Daily News headline is more effective than the ones in U.S. News and World Report and the Wichita blog.

The danger, of course, is when the reference becomes passe. Headline writers run the risk of sounding hopelessly out of date when they use phrases from a dozen years ago. We have to recognize that tastes and trends move quickly. Otherwise we fall victim to cliche and anachronism.

For example, a reference to "a field of dreams" probably doesn’t work anymore, 17 years after the release of the movie of that name. The same goes for "a league of their own." Even "jump the shark" has jumped the shark.

Time is running out for "gone wild." Perhaps one indicator that the description is losing its impact comes from The Onion. "Girls gone wild released back into civilization" read a headline in the satirical paper a few months ago. When The Onion turns a phrase on its head, it’s probably time for the legitimate media to give it a rest.

UPDATE: This post has prompted a few testy comments at Testy Copy Editors. Says one: "Write headlines that reflect the story, not ones that show we understand pop culture." OK. But on occasion, why not do both?
posted by Andy Bechtel at 11:26 AM | Permalink |