As I was reading James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters (2012), I was reminded of how far Eon had gone in establishing Licence Revoked as the name of Timothy Dalton's second Bond film (released as Licence to Kill in 1989). Poster concepts using the title had been commissioned, notices were published in the trade press, and a huge billboard advertising License Revoked (the spelling of 'licence' had not yet been fixed) surrounded the entrance to the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. So to change the film's title to Licence to Kill in the eleventh hour as the principal marketing campaign began was no insignificant undertaking.
As with many well-worn facts, the reason given for the title change has subtly varied over the years, although some variants have been more successful than others in establishing themselves in popular culture.
Two of the key individuals working on Licence Revoked – Timothy Dalton and director John Glen – identify MGM as the driver for the title change. Glen writes in his autobiography, For My Eyes Only, that the marketing people protested that American audiences wouldn't know what revoked meant. Dalton supports this, telling Bill Desowitz in James Bond Unmasked that MGM thought that no one would understand it.
In Kiss Kiss, Bang! Bang! (1997) by Alan Barnes and Marcus Hearn, and The Bond Files (1998) by Andy Lane and Paul Simpson, the emphasis switched from MGM's marketing people to US test audiences. It was their apparent incomprehension at the word 'revoked' that convinced the producers (or MGM) to go for the title change. Still with the onus on audiences, Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall offer another reason in The Essential Bond (1998) – that 'it was discovered that US audiences associated the term with losing a driving licence'.
More recently, though, the MGM marketing people have returned to the spotlight. In a caption for a Licence Revoked concept poster reproduced in his poster book, Alastair Dougall describes a 'fear' that audiences wouldn't know what revoked meant, and Mark O'Connell writes in his brilliant book, Catching Bullets (2012) about a 'belief' that revoked was unfamiliar with US audiences.
Whether or not the title Licence Revoked was changed in response to US test audiences or a view held by MGM based on limited or no objective data is uncertain, but what is interesting from a memetic perspective is that the subtly different reasons given by commentators have their own currency within cultural space by virtue of their being published, and are therefore available to be replicated and become more widespread. The more frequently the variant appears in print (or on the web) the greater chance it has of being further replicated, regardless of its validity.
A variant's success is also helped by its intrinsic appeal to readers. The 'US audience incomprehension' reason seems to have more penetration in popular culture than the 'driving licence' reason perhaps because it better fits existing cultural perceptions. Just consider how familiar people are with the 'fact' that The Madness of George III became The Madness of King George because US audiences might have mistaken it for a sequel. The story of title change being driven by audience incomprehension is not quite true in the case of The Madness of King George and possibly not quite true in the case of Licence to Kill either, but the shared narrative taps into widely-held views about American culture and this is what gives the narrative its survival value.