Stuart Elliott: Can Commercialized Clues Compromise Crosswords?

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Stuart Elliott: Can Commercialized Clues Compromise Crosswords?

Among the many lessons I learned while working for the New York Times was that its readers know what they like -- and what they don't. For instance, there's a significant number who don't like advertisements and would be thrilled if the paper became some sort of noncommercial public trust, free from the concerns of turning a profit. Their disdain for being targeted by marketers was a big reason the Times has had to devise approaches to online ads that are different from what most other publishers do. That's why the Times' native advertising is far less likely to look like editorial content; sponsored posts that bear labels such as "Promoted" and "Around the Web" on other news websites are described plainly as "From Our Advertisers" on

Still, that's not enough to satisfy some purists. Take one named Josephine Donovan, who wrote a letter to the editor last week complaining about "gimmicky" changes to the Times' famous crossword puzzles that have been made at the expense of "knowledge of history, science, geography, literature, etc." Donovan decried "clever wordplay and puns," "an increased reference to popular culture celebrities" and -- gasp! -- clues that "now frequently refer to ads, corporate logos and commercial products."

Donovan isn't condemning the commercialized clues as branded content or product placement; she's against any hint of Madison Avenue impingement. "In short, there has been a dumbing down of the puzzle," her letter concluded. "I, for one, would like to see a return to the more intellectually challenging puzzles of yore."

I, for one, look at the Times crossword puzzle the way some Supreme Court justices (not the late Antonin Scalia) look at the Constitution: as a living, breathing thing. As the language of advertising and marketing takes an increasing role in American life, why shouldn't the puzzle reflect that?

Is there any real difference between a clue that reads "___ Perignon," as in the puzzle of Feb. 10, and a clue that reads "Comedian ___ DeLuise" or a clue that reads "Baseball's ___ DiMaggio"? (The answer to all three, of course, is DOM.) That puzzle also had a clue inquiring about "Classic British sports cars" (MGS) and one that asked readers to finish a TV slogan, "This is ___" (CNN).

Commercialized clues fit the cosmopolitan tone in which the Times puzzles are written as well as clues about "F.D.R.'s successor" (HST), "When Brutus struck" (IDES) or the "Source of about 20% of the calories consumed by humanity" (RICE). Some other recent examples include "Puffed-grain cereal" (KIX), "Sour candy brand" (WARHEADS), "Big seller for Sports Illustrated" (SWIMSUIT EDITION), "Reebok competitor" (ASICS), "One making a roaring start" (MGM LION), "3 Musketeers alternative" (SNICKERS), "Brand name whose middle two letters are linked in its logo" (KOOL) and "Studebaker model whose name means 'Let's go!' in Italian" (AVANTI).

As that reference to the auto marque Studebaker suggests, many clues seemingly are aimed at a, well, mature audience -- folks who still may be filling out the dead-tree versions of the puzzles. Does that turn off younger readers, or are they already a lost cause when it comes to buying newspapers' print editions?

The Times puzzle creators and editors often will acknowledge that answering some clues will require a brisk stroll down memory lane, as with one in the Jan. 27 crossword, "Lash of old westerns" (LARUE). That same puzzle, however, had a clue, "Bikini blast, briefly," which required a reader to be familiar with the NTEST (nuclear test) series that took place on the Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958.

Sometimes a Times crossword will rush back and forth between decades at a breakneck pace. The Feb. 10 puzzle with the Champagne and TV references also required readers to be familiar with "No, siree, Bob," a saying that dates to the 1800s; the 1973 song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"; and the "Singer with the 2015 album '25'" (ADELE). The puzzle two days earlier touched on recent pop-culture milestones -- "Twilight," Tyra Banks, "The Fault in Our Stars," even a Kardashian (KIM) -- along with a "Blue creature of old Saturday morning TV" (SMURF), a "1962 007 villain" (DRNO) and "Buffy, to vampires" (SLAYER).

It may be appropriate that a crossword appearing in a tabloid alternative to the Times, the Daily News, offers even more clues with advertising and marketing roots. Presumably, the Daily News' readers don't include people who turn up their noses at commercialized references.

Recent Daily News nods to products and brands include "KLM destination" (EUR), "Brand X" (GENERIC), "Disney CEO Bob" (IGER), "Stockholm carrier" (SAS), "It merged with BP" (AMOCO), "Starbucks order" (LATTE), "Alligators on shirts" (LOGOS), "Koala's carrier" (QANTAS), "Boeing products" (JETS) and even "Website clutter" (ADS).

Like the crosswords in the Times, there are frequently clues in the Daily News that strongly imply the puzzles are intended for older readers. Remember what a Victrola was, and who made them? (RCA). Remember Maurice Chevalier, and his theme song? (MIMI). Remember the movie "Shane," and who played the title role? (LADD, for Alan Ladd).

Twice recently there have been clues asking for "Hitachi rivals," with the answers being NEC and SANYO. Japanese electronics marketers -- how very 1980s! Speaking of which, the answer to the clue "Retail giant" in the Jan. 16 Daily News puzzle was KMART. Among other dated brand-related clues of late: "Folgers' Mrs." (OLSON), "HP or Acer wares" (PCS) and "NYSE rival" (AMEX, or American Stock Exchange, which was bought out in 2008).

Then again, if you think nostalgia is peachy keen, groovy or right on, the Daily News crossword is for you. A clue in the Jan. 5 puzzle read, "Arsenio's buddy," as in Arsenio Hall, with the answer being EDDIE, as in Eddie Murphy. No doubt they used to shop together at KMART for NEC or SANYO products.

A day later, a clue read, "Eddie's cop character," as if it's the most natural thing in the world in 2016 to refer to Murphy by his first name. (The answer was AXEL, his moniker in "Beverly Hills Cop," from 1984.) You-know-who resurfaced in the Jan. 20 puzzle when a clue asked for "A funny Murphy."

Here are some other recent Daily News clues with vintage vantage points: "TV hookup" (VCR), "High-tech albums" (PCS), "Harper Valley ___" (PTA), "Horse ___" (OPERA; "horse opera" once was a nickname for TV westerns), "Funny Bombeck" (ERMA), "Web surfer's need" (MODEM), "Wire" (TELEGRAM), "Role for Liz" (CLEO; Liz Taylor played Cleopatra in the 1963 movie of the same name), "Nancy rich kid" (ROLLO, a reference to a character in the Nancy comic strip), "MTV hosts" (VJS), "Al the trumpet player" (HIRT), "George Burns prop" (CIGAR), "Ms. McClurg" (EDIE), "Bobby ___" (SOX) and "And ___ we go!" (AWAY, a catchphrase associated with Jackie Gleason).

Perhaps the most-cited bygone name in the Daily News crosswords is the author Erle Stanley Garner, who wrote the Perry Mason mystery novels that were adapted for television. He has turned up as "___ Stanley Garner," "Perry's creator," "Garner of mystery" and even "Della Street's penner," a reference to Mason's secretary and his -- to use a term that may come up any day now in a Daily News puzzle -- girl Friday.

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