Trademarks and Politics

Now that the 2008 political season is in full swing, I”m reminded of the interrelationship between commercial trademarks and political slogans.  Politicians often use catch phrases from popular culture to connect with voters. And if those catch phrases are associated with any goods or services, the providers of those goods or services can experience an increase in sales.  Perhaps the most famous example of this occurred during the 1984 presidential campaign. 

What started as part of an ad campaign for a fast-food chain turned into a rhetorical question about a candidate”s qualifications for office.  In late 1983 or early 1984, Wendy”s Restaurants started running television commercials in which three elderly ladies inspect a competitor”s burger. One of the ladies lifts the huge top bun only to find a tiny hamburger patty underneath.  At this point, another lady asks the now famous question, “Where”s the beef?”  Although these commercials were enormously popular, Wendy”s didn”t initially apply for federal trademark protection for the slogan.  

All that changed on March 11, 1984 in the aftermath of a debate of Democratic Party presidential candidates.  At the time, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was rising in the polls with his campaign slogan of “new ideas.”  During the debate, Senator Walter Mondale countered by suggesting that Hart”s ideas lacked substance.  “When I hear your new ideas,” quipped Mondale, “I”m reminded of that ad, ”Where”s the beef?””  The audience loved it.  A little more than a month later, on April 13, 1984, Wendy”s filed two applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for the slogan “Where”s the beef?”  The first application, for restaurant and carry out restaurant services, claimed a date of first use of December 26, 1983.  The second application was for a huge variety of promotional items:  everything from beach blankets and bumper stickers to sweatshirts and wastebaskets. 

The date of first use for all of these items was listed as March 1984, the same month that the slogan was used in the presidential debate.  Wendy”s was no doubt trying to capitalize on the increased popularity of “Where”s the beef?” brought on by Mondale”s use of the slogan during the debate.  The relationship between Mondale and Wendy”s proved to be mutually beneficial.  Mondale went on to win the Democratic nomination for President, and Wendy”s presumably sold a lot of promotional items in addition to burgers.  Federal registration of “Where”s the beef?” later issued for both Wendy”s restaurant services and its promotional items.  But Mondale didn”t fare nearly as well; he lost the 1984 election to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.                      

More than twenty years later, the slogan “Where”s the beef?” still enjoys federal protection for restaurant services, although the only promotional items that are still federally registered are lapel pins and metal buttons.  Only time will tell whether another commercial slogan will emerge from the 2008 campaign with as much staying power as “Where”s the beef?”  Carl Mueller, CLAS is a Certified Paralegal with Advanced Paralegal Certification in Intellectual Property with the Law Office of Chris Stewart, P.C.  He can be reached at carl@chrisstewartlaw.com

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