By now, you've probably seen Chrysler's "Born of Fire" ad -- the two-minute-long clip that debuted during the Super Bowl featuring the Chrysler 200, Eminem, and a gospel choir. You probably also know that it's generated lots of publicity, even though some of that buzz seems unwarranted and even though Chrysler may not know what to do with it.
What you might've missed, though, is the line of t-shirts from a company called Pure Detroit that made use of Chrysler's tagline from that ad: "Imported from Detroit". Now Chrysler is suing Pure Detroit for trademark infringement.
The law is on Chrysler's side, since Chrysler owns the trademark and already offers its own line of "Imported from Detroit" products. From where we sit, though, Chrysler would be well advised to leave Pure Detroit alone.
As lawsuits go, Chrysler's is fairly shortsighted. Not quite as shortsighted as, say, Lindsay Lohan suing eTrade, but still pretty dumb -- from a PR perspective, anyway.
It's very similar to the NFL's lawsuit against two clothing manufacturers in New Orleans in 2010: at the height of the Saints football frenzy, the NFL claimed ownership of the "Who Dat" phrase that Saints fans love to chant. Whether there was a copyrighted Saints logo on the manufacturers' merchandise or not, the NFL told the two to cease and desist.
The backlash was fast and furious. Less than five years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, New Orleans and its Saints were underdogs, and America loves nothing more than rooting for an underdog. So for NFL fat cats to come down on indie t-shirt manufacturers in one of the biggest underdog cities of all...well, it was an argument the NFL couldn't win, and the League soon dropped the lawsuit altogether. In fact, it did a complete 180, claiming to LOVE Saints fans and that all the legal mishegas was just a big misunderstanding. The mood in New Orleans remains skeptical.
Pure Detroit is, like the outfits in New Orleans, an indie t-shirt shop. Detroit, like New Orleans itself, is a city struggling to reimagine and rebuild itself, full of resolute, proud citizens. And Chrysler, like the NFL, is a giant-sized corporate entity -- one that's still scrambling to rebuild its public image in the face of the 2009 bailout fiasco.
We understand the importance of protecting trademarks. We also understand that since a sizable chunk of Chrysler is now in foreign hands, the "imported from Detroit" tagline seems pretty apt. But this lawsuit (not a cease-and-desist order) could easily blow up in Chrysler's face.
ON A SIDE NOTE
For those wondering about Pure Detroit's products, last month our own John Voelcker spoke with Ryan Hooper, the company's director of cultural affairs and management. Hooper said that while the "Imported from Detroit" shirts are designed within city of Detroit and printed in the metro Detroit region (Madison Heights, specifically), the company can't guarantee that the shirts themselves are made in America (much less Detroit) or that they're made from American cotton. So at least the company's honest about potential ironies.