Uma Thurman for Louis VuittonEnlarge Photo
Screencap from Hyundai ad from Super Bowl XLIVEnlarge Photo
Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, better known as LVMH, is suing Hyundai, claiming that the automaker created confusion among consumers by creating a "false association" between itself and the luxury goods manufacturer. The case hinges on a basketball.
The ball in question can be glimpsed at the :04 mark in a TV ad for the 2011 Hyundai Sonata called "Luxury". The 30-second spot features upmarket items in a range of middle-market settings: factory workers dining on lobster, police officers shoveling down caviar in their patrol car, and, of course, the controversial designer basketball. A voiceover says, "What if we made luxury available to everyone? Would it still be called luxury? Or maybe we'd need a new word for it. Oh, here's one: Hyundai."
If you compare the basketball in the screencap at left with the Louis Vuitton handbag above it -- presented by spokeswoman Uma Thurman -- you'll notice that their embossed, gold-on-brown patterns bear more than a passing similarity. LVMH says that Hyundai intended "to benefit commercially from the fame and renown of the LVM Marks by creating a false association between Louis Vuitton and its automobiles." (Though of course, everyone knows that LVMH's heart belongs to Infiniti.) According to Reuters, LVMH is suing for "triple damages, punitive damages, a halt to the alleged infringement, and other remedies."
We hate to admit it, we may have to side with LVMH on this one. Although the accusations seem sketchier than, say, the ones Dodge leveled at Lake Mary High School earlier this year, that particular Louis Vuitton pattern is widely recognized by consumers, and it's been trademarked to within an inch of its life. Hyundai's marketing team should've known that, and they also should've know that as a couture house -- and a French couture house at that -- LVMH isn't afraid to drag infringers to jail. Ordinarily, we'd be inclined to cut the Korean automakers some slack, since copyright and trademark regulations run a little fast and loose in Asia, but this came straight from Hyundai Motor America, so there's really no excuse.
That said, LVMH might've been less inclined to sue if Hyundai hadn't debuted the ad during the recent Super Bowl broadcast, which was the most-watched TV program in U.S. history. Given the game's record-breaking viewership, about one in three Americans saw the spot on February 7, and many, many more have seen it since. That's a pretty serious infraction, warranting more than a simple cease-and-desist letter.
Whether or not LVMH will prevail in court is a matter of debate. European courts have been happy to impose fines on eBay and other retailers for selling goods that violate such trademarks, and even street vendors who traffic in counterfeit designer products face stiff penalties across the pond. However, this lawsuit was filed in the state of New York. We're guessing that Hyundai will ultimately settle out of court, but if anything interesting develops, we'll let you know.
Oh, and just in case you missed it, here's the offending ad: