Thou Christian Industry Shalt Not Steal?

A recent story that ran in USA Today by Jay Reeves with the Associated Press tackled a topic that I had long disregarded as a non-issue. What’s that you ask? Well, have you ever seen those Christian-themed products that parody trendy, secular ones? You know, “Got Jesus?” instead of “Got Milk?”. That type of stuff. I bet you have, and I’ve never really thought about it much myself (other than “wow that’s corny”), but here’s the thing – Products like these are walking a very, very thin line. A trademark infringement line to be precise. Imitations include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Abercrombie & Fitch > Abreadcrumb & Fish
  • iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iLife, iMac > iPray
  • Guitar Hero > God is my Hero

I’m certainly not going to list them all, there’s way too many to name. To help put things in perspective for you though, the Christian merchandising industry rakes in a whopping $4.6 billion per year. Of that, one-third is apparel. The very apparel that sports these ripoff branding jobs. There’s no telling how much of that one-third the spoofs and parodies actually make up though.

Trademark attorney Michael G. Atkins of Seattle claims that legal parodies of commercial trademarks are in fact protected under the First Amendment. Let’s drill down what he means by “parodies”, because such religious products generally don’t fall into that category. “You could take Microsoft and change their logo around to make fun of Microsoft, and that would be legal,” Atkins said. “But I can’t use the Microsoft logo to promote my Christian theme because there’s no real connection there. That’s illegal.”

The big issue, of course, is money. That’s what it all comes down to. What Atkins is saying in a nutshell, is that it’s perfectly fine to, say, poke fun at a company using their branding and designs, but it’s unfair to actually profit from it.

The companies that produce this stuff are forcing the originals they derived their products from to walk an equally thin line themselves. Atkins explains, “I think you have a real tension between the legal department and the PR department,” he said. “(Large companies) are very sensitive to looking like they are anti-Christian, so they are very restrained in going after the wrongdoers.”

It’s a very real dilemma. One that probably won’t go away any time soon. Companies producing Christian-themed novelties inspired by pop culture will continue to push the envelope, wait for the next big popular thing, and copy that. The companies who were copied from, of course, won’t do much because they don’t want the general public to judge them lest they be persecuted for wanting to protect their investments – intellectual or otherwise.

Having been raised in a church-going family from the cradle, I’ve seen stuff like this almost on a daily basis. What you should realize is I’m keeping this as unbiased as possible. I’m not taking a stab at any particular religion or denomination, or corporate America for that matter. Heck, I’m not even trying to play devil’s advocate (sorry, bad pun), I’m just exploring the issue. When you get down to the ol’ brass tacks though, this isn’t even so much about the Christian industry in particular swiping somebody elses property, as it is about it being possible to begin with. It’s about blatant trademark infringement taking place and having the issue swept under a rug for fear of negative public backlash.

In the meantime, the masterminds behind these spoofs are laughing all the way to the bank.

With that being said, any ideas what company we can gank from next? Looks like there’s some real money to be had here.

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Binder and Binder

BinderBinder and Binder… “America’s most successful Social Security disability advocates.” That’s one of their mottos, and I can live with that one. The other? “We’ll deal with the government, you have enough to worry about.” Well, evidently Binder thinks that the typical American will worry more about the money they think they should get from Uncle Sam than why their pitchman is doing his best impersonation of J.R. Ewing.

Okay, fine. The guy is wearing a cowboy hat. So what? Well, here’s what’s wrong with Larry Hagman’s lid. I consider myself a somewhat savvy consumer. I take a while to make big decisions. You know, TVs, computers, cars, etc. I would classify going after the likes of the United States government larger than those – a monumental decision in and of itself. Now I’m not looking for help with Social Security or anything, but if I was, I lose all interest in Binder once I see that damn hat. Credibility is instantly shot. My thought process being that if this guy feels that he can, while sporting said hat, professionally represent his company to a national TV audience without getting laughed at then his judgement clearly stinks.

Or does it?

Is Binder simply playing the lets-get-them-talking-and-they’ll-come game? Probably. I’m writing about it aren’t I? And after all, it worked for screaming Billy Mays and his painted-on black beard. It worked for the Vince Offer (of Shamwow and SlapChop fame) minus the beard. The big difference is those guys were pushing food processors and garden tools. Binder is going to pick a fight with the US government on your behalf. Not exactly apples to apples. More like apples to moon rocks.

So let’s say these Binder folks get the general public talking – which they have. People talk, people research and people eventually buy or they don’t buy. That second step (the research part) is the one where Binder, Texas Ranger falls flat on its 10 gallon hat. Simply entering “Binder and Binder” in Google will populate a few interesting nuggets thanks to predictive searching. Try it out, you’ll see:

  • Binder and Binder scam
  • Binder and Binder reviews
  • Binder and Binder complaints
  • Binder and Binder cowboy hat

Less than ideal? I’d say so – either as a Binder employee or as a customer. Nevertheless, if Binder’s short-term strategy was/is to simply make a quick buck (ala infomercial style) then they did a good job. However if Binder was/is hoping to stick around a while and hope that consumers take them seriously, they’ve created quite the uphill battle for themselves.

All because of a rediculous hat. Yeehaw.

Figure/Ground Creations

Believe it or not this was the catalyst for the creation of this blog. So thank you Knight Transportation for being the inspiration, and incidentally, the only source of excitement commuting to and fro last week. Anyways, take a look at this gem of a branding job Knight has accomplished (sans “Knight Transportation”). I’ll be honest with you, the first time I saw the K logo (which is what I’m going to refer to it as), I wasn’t blown away. It’s pretty slick. A big, bold “K” with a knight’s helmet strategically positioned at the top.

It wasn’t until some time later that I felt like I had struck gold by noticing the horse’s head underneath it, seemingly camouflaged within itself. I wanted to tell the other stopped motorists around me that more than just a huge K and knight’s helmet existed here, but I refrained. This is the DC area after all, and well,  I just didn’t feel like getting the finger or shot that day. This is a prime example of figure/ground imagery. Very, very clever. Bravo Knight Transportation. Maybe your guys can get with Pepsi or the Instituto de Estudos Orientais (to your right) and figure something out. Sweet Moses that is one suggestive work of art if I’ve ever seen one.

I couldn’t help recalling, at this point, a similar awakening I had millions of years ago as a 15 year old in my bedroom. I’m talking about the first figure/ground illusions used for commercial consumption that really stuck with me. Behold the Hartford Whalers.

Hartford Whalers

Now this is a thing of beauty. The Hartford Whalers, an old WHL team turned NHL, moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes and the logo was history. The team was called the Whalers, so the huge blue whale tail is (hopefully) fairly obvious upon first inspection. For me, the next painfully clear trait this logo had was the big green “W” underneath it. What I didn’t pick up on for years was that an inverted “H” separates said tail from the “W”. Now that my friends is brilliant. The word “clever” doesn’t do this creation any justice.