The Toronto Globe and Mail recently reported on a clever anti-littering campaign that was launched and quickly aborted in Toronto due to trademark concerns. The premise for the campaign was to take wrappers and packaging from some well-known brands and position it to create words describing litterers–words like dipstick, dumb, lazy, lowlife, pig, etc. While it’s a close call, I suspect this campaign was expected to be slightly more effective than my headline for this post.
Now, I’m no Canadian lawyer (although I do own a Canadian tuxedo), but I wonder how in the name of Bryan Adams this ad campaign was approved all the way through publication without anyone thinking about getting the permission of the brand owners. Not surprisingly, the brand owners whose packaging was used for the ads raised concerns about negative associations that might result from the ads. And if Canadian trademark law is anything like U.S. trademark law, they would have probably had a pretty decent case. That’s not to say that Toronto (or whatever ad agency put the campaign together) would be defenseless–indeed, I can imagine a couple arguments based on the fact that the packaging is not being used as a trademark and this could potentially constitute a type of fair use–but, at the very least, this campaign was something that was likely to start a fight. Well-established brands are precious commodities and it’s unthinkable that any reputable brand would be okay with its brand being equated with trash. (Unless, of course, you’re in the trash business.)
Perhaps the ad campaign was launched under the theory of “better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,” or perhaps the ad agency that put the campaign together was willing to gamble in an effort to get their name out. Whatever the logic, I think it was always an unfortunate foregone conclusion that this ad campaign would not survive long. What do you think?