We continue to have Super Bowl LII on our minds here in the Twin Cities. It’s hard to avoid thinking about the upcoming “Big Game” with ads like these blanketing our skyway maze:

Turns out, everyone wants to have a little piece of the action in this upcoming event, even without the formality and cost associated with sponsorship, some call it ambush marketing:

Ambush marketing is not necessarily unlawful. It’s tricky, but I’m guessing the above ad may have cleared a legal review. No obvious conflicts with federally-registered rights, it appears.

Having said that, does this little guy change your view on things? Look familiar? It appears to be the same Wilson NFL Pee Wee Touchdown football without the name brands shown:

I’m thinking the JB Hudson ad employed a little airbrush strategy, or at least some strategic and highly precise palm expansion and placement in hiding the Wilson and NFL logos.

Actually, if so, it’s a good move, but will it be enough — especially given this website link — to avoid the aggressive NFL Super Bowl sponsorship police?

Who owns rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, if anyone? Anyone?

Neither Wilson nor the NFL appear to own federally-registered rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, but do common law rights exist?

If so, who owns them, the NFL or the maker of the NFL’s official game footballs, Wilson?

Moreover, did legal review consider non-verbal marks? What about the stitching design bordering the football laces? Non-traditional trademark? Functional? If not functional, fair use?

So much to think about as we anxiously await the Big Game in our own chilly backyard . . . .

Let’s suppose you’ve been asked to search and clear the name of a bar, without seeing the design mark in the upper right and lower left hand corners of this photo (from a recent trip to Boston):

When I first saw this design logo, I thought the name was probably W Bar, so you know where my mind went next, right?

Not there, but here, yes, I was thinking Alpha Watch again.

But then, I second-guessed myself and started seeing M Bar, still with Alpha Watch on my mind.

Next, I really started questioning my focus on single letter marks, seeing instead Un Bar, then Hi Bar (without the dot in the i).

What have you seen that I didn’t, as a possible bar name? If you’re familiar with Boylston Street in Boston, you’re disqualified from answering.

Back to your assignment now — the point is, had you merely been asked to search and clear M Bar as a name and mark, it is best to see how it actually will appear to potential consumers.

Curious cursive lettering or script can appear to be or mean different things to different people.

So, while the potential scope of rights in the resulting visual identity of the brand may be quite broad if cleared for use, the significant challenge during clearance and due diligence is to make sure the multitude of possible meanings have been considered as part of the search strategy.

Absorbing all the television commercials in between football action on the field can be as much fun on Super Bowl Sunday as the actual game itself, at least for trademark and marketing types, especially when your favorite team isn’t even on the field.

One of my personal favorites from this past weekend’s Super Bowl XLVI was the above “Chevy” Apocalypse advertisement, and not because it reminded me about GM’s Chevy trademark dodging the fatal lyrics: “This Will Be The Day That I Die”.

Instead, what caught my attention — beyond the controversy surrounding how Chevy called out Ford by name — were the other unrelated food brand references (Twinkies and Big Boy), leaving me wondering whether GM obtained advance permission for the use of these marks and/or whether GM might have shared the cost of the spot with these brands appearing as possible paid placements.

No need to wonder whether GM obtained advance permission from Ford, obviously it didn’t, and we’ll see whether a false advertising lawsuit results from it.

But, back to the third party food brands, could it be that the Twinkies appearance in the Chevy Apocalypse ad served as an additional jab at the perhaps indestructable ingredients of the snack food, recognizing that the bankrupt Hostess brand may not be in the best position to object? And, what about the charred Big Boy restaurant signage?

By all accounts, this must have been an interesting ad to clear — attempting to dodge and/or minimize the risk of potential claims from Ford, Hostess, and the various concurrent owners of the Big Boy mark.

What are your thoughts about these third party brand references? How would you have navigated this one? Permission necessary for some or all? Nominative fair use for some or all?

Earlier this month, Seth Godin wrote an interesting blog post called "The overwhelming fear of being wrong." In it he writes:

"Almost every marketer I know underestimates how widespread this fear is. It is the lone barrier almost every product and service has to overcome in order to succeed."

Fear of being wrong can also be a significant barrier to providing good legal advice, especially when trademark counsel is being asked to assess risk, as I wrote a while back:

"Perhaps fearful of choosing the wrong side makes sitting on the fence the preferred course of action for J.D. Waffler. He or she is much more comfortable telling you both sides of the story and ends up providing this kind of invaluable advice: ‘It could go either way,’ ‘you could really flip a coin on this one,’ ‘it’s six of one and a half a dozen of the other,’ or ‘it’s no better than a 50/50 shot.’ Let’s just say, that is pretty safe advice, assuming the clients don’t demand more."

For more on dealing with J.D. Waffler, see here.

By the way, what is 50/50 legal advice worth?

Would it surprise you to learn that not all trademark types are created equal? I didn’t think so. Like any profession, some of the professionals are better and more gifted than others. A few are much better. And, if bell curves have any application here, a few are much worse too.

In the inaugural post for DuetsBlog, last March, we introduced a type of trademark attorney known as "Dr. No," and we discussed how he or she likes to focus on the "Parade of Horribles" instead of creative solutions to difficult and important problems:

The underlying personal brand promise for this lawyer is to say “no,” early and often, believing an enormous hourly rate is still justified by citing a multitude of technical and valid legal reasons in support of the unhelpful answer. He is obsessed with saluting to the Parade of Horribles.  He is typically part of the problem, not the solution.  Perhaps repeated frustration with this kind of Dr. No is what motivated one cartoonist to brand (uh, jab) the “trademark attorney” as “the most basic figure," at least in the world of Art.

Avoiding the "Dr. No" moniker and mindset should not be the only goal of trademark types. There is clearly room for improvement in our profession in other areas too.

Gather ’round, it’s time to meet J.D. Waffler.

Continue Reading J.D. Waffler: The Art of Taking a Position

 

Last month I came across this enormous, larger than life, banner advertisement hanging from the exterior of a casino on our way to the backwoods of Wisconsin.

Of course, this promotional piece took me back to my early childhood and called to mind my long lost enormous collection of Matchbox brand Hot Wheels toy cars and racetrack, but it appears there is no connection with the miniature toy vehicle maker — the winning prize was not a toy replica, but a genuine 2011 Ford Mustang.

Continue Reading “Hot Wheels” Casino Promotion: Apparently Not a Toy Story