By now, you’ve undoubtedly seen the commercials with real men named Ronald McDonald enjoying Taco Bell’s new breakfast items. Sure, this was creative and it must’ve been time consuming to find and visit all of those guys, but was it smart? Yes… and no.
Overall, using a competitor’s trademark is risky (that’s why you need an excellent trademark lawyer). Why? Character names and likenesses are often protected under trademark and copyright law, so if you misstep you could be in big trouble. Where did Taco Bell go right, though? They didn’t suggest that any of the men in the commercial were McDonald’s Ronald. Also, they put a (kinda funny) disclaimer at the bottom of the screen.
This is a perfect response to Taco Bell – look at that big, shiny, pristine McDonald soothing an ugly, possibly smelly, chihuahua (Taco Bell’s mascot).
When a company uses a competitor’s name in advertising, courts often apply the fair use doctrine to determine if there’s been a violation. Basically, this credo has three parts:
1. Did the company need to use the competitor’s trademark to identify the competing product?
2. Did the company go beyond the necessary use of the trademark, such as by using the character’s costuming or images from the logo?
3. Did the company do anything to suggest there was an endorsement by or an affiliation with the competitor?
For the most part, Taco Bell’s answer to the questions above is “no.” But even though McDonald’s doesn’t seem to be pursuing a case against T.B., there could be some debate over the first question – did they absolutely need to use real men named Ronald McDonald’s to identify McDonald’s breakfast items? Maybe, but maybe not…
For more information about copyright & trademark law, visit Angelino Law online.