Turning words into weapons

April 4, 2005

It’s funny how words lend themselves to different meanings. Change the spelling and the word “aisle” becomes its homonym, “I’ll.” Change a letter or two and being unseemly (fat) becomes appealing (phat).

It's funny how words lend themselves to different meanings. Change the spelling and the word "aisle" becomes its homonym, "I'll." Change a letter or two and being unseemly (fat) becomes appealing (phat).

These kinds of language issues are fodder for Madison Avenue. New products demand names that conjure up positive associations. Consumer products are replete with examples, and so is imaging equipment. Take z-Sharp, for example.

Rather than referring to a product, z-Sharp denotes a technology underlying a product: Siemens' 64-slice CT. It utilizes a flying focal spot that almost instantaneously fires x-rays at two different angles, allowing a 32-channel detector to produce 64 slices per rotation.

But a Siemens competitor, disputing the description of Siemens' latest CT system as a 64-slice scanner, has taken to calling z-Sharp a different name: z-Wobble.

The reason for this moniker, of course, is to change the association from positive to a negative. It plays off the same core technology, the flying focal spot, as z-Sharp. And it illustrates the ease with which associations can be made and changed.

The appearance of z-Sharp and its derogatory counterpart indicates how far we have come as a nation of "wordscapers," populating our environment with adjectives that come into and fall out of fashion. For the most part, such euphemisms glide in under the radar, at treetop height. They are accepted, even imitated. (See "Wassup with Triple Rule Out?" SCAN 3/21/05).

But parodies and platitudes aside, branding is serious business. It is human nature to try to winnow things down to a comprehensible series of common denominators. Comparing the number of channels in diagnostic ultrasound equipment gave Acuson an enormous edge over competitors and for years secured the position of its Acuson 128 as the premium ultrasound system in radiology. Over time, other vendors' technology narrowed the gap, but the perception remained.

Today, much the same battle is shaping up in CT. Until recently, it was a numbers game played on level ground. The differences between Siemens' flying focal spot and other vendors' conventional approach of adding more detector arrays has cranked competition up to a new level, however.

Whereas z-Sharp implies exactness, z-Wobble suggests imprecision. Charges that Siemens does not have a "true" 64-slice scanner invite debate about what constitutes 64 slices. This is counterproductive, distracting, and demeaning to purchasers who must make decisions about equipment priced well over $1.5 million.

These decisions should be made on the basis of factors most relevant to the buyer, including image quality, expanded clinical application, ease of use, and reliability. None of these is particularly easy to quantify, especially in a new breed of technology such as the industry's next generation of CT scanners. But they should be quantified, just as criticisms should be based on fact.

Pandering to buyers' worst instincts may work for selling cars, but imaging equipment demands more forethought and greater care.