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Cars lives in Target (but not in me)

[Post title playing on Mike’s post re Harry Potter…]

In my article written a few years back about Google, trademark, and search regulation, I used “Cars” (more or less randomly) as a representative search term with both a trademark and a descriptive meaning.  I found it interesting that about half of Google’s results were for automobiles while the rest were for the Disney movie. A search a few seconds ago shows roughly the same result — perhaps with the descriptive meaning gaining a little ground. In the article,  I also noted that the trademark “cars” was not a mark owned exclusively by Disney — some other companies used the word as a mark in relation to other goods and services. Last night at my visit to Target, the “Cars” trademark jumped out at me again.


The picture shows an “endcap” in the toy section of a local Target store.  I just finished writing a draft of a forthcoming article that is, more or less, an appeal to jurists to respect the traditional role of trademarks as designators of the sources of particular goods and services. But what sorts of goods and services do consumers associate with “Cars”?  The Cars mark is used here to sell not just toys, but (from the bottom up): snacks, a comforter, tissues, Nutri-Grain bars, and cereal.  Breakfast with Batman Cars, indeed.  Walking around Target, the “Cars” brand was almost everywhere.  It was hard to find any section of the store that didn’t have something (towels, notebooks, clothing) that featured the “Cars” brand.  Talk about ubiquity.

I admit I found the experience a little disquieting from a trademark policy perspective.  Looking around the toy section of the store, it was hard to spot any toy that was really just a toy marketed as valuable in itself.  Well over half of the toys were tied in to the promotion of various Hollywood movies and brands (Tranformers, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel). Apparently, Disney, Warner, etc. and the toy companies agree this is the way to go.  But is the invisible hand really helping us out here?  Is there any argument that really we’re better off with Hollywood owning Target’s toy section? Do we get better toys with this use of brands?  Probably not, but, as Mark Bartholomew recently explained, a lot of people have objected to this sort of thing over the last 100 years, and the tide of brands keeps rising.

Over in the video games section, I noticed that about half of the titles advertised for the PS3 were also tied into Hollywood’s latest offerings. My son and I were looking at school notebooks and we thought it was kind of interesting that the Transformers-branded notebook is holographic — maybe you’re not just advertising the film (and its associated merchandise) to other kids in school, you’re also advertising the push toward 3D? Yay.

Other than wondering about whether the Cars(tm) invasion of Target was a good thing in general, I was also wondering how far this is going to go.  I didn’t look like Cars(tm) had much of a foothold in light bulbs, gardening equipment, duct tape… it wasn’t as if absolutely everything in Target was tied into merchandising rights for a movie.  Will that still be true 20 years from now?

I probably won’t see Cars 2, by the way.  I did see the last one and I thought it was pretty good — I found the Route 66 nostalgia in it curiously ironic.

2 thoughts on “Cars lives in Target (but not in me)”

  1. I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day about how Disney’s acquisition of Pixar has been reflected in the evolution of Disneyland (and, to a lesser extent, in the evolution of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World). The basic point was that Disneyland was originally an environment in which Disney expressed his vision(s) of the American past, present, and future. There was corporate sponsorship, to be sure, but it was corporate branding of particular rides/attractions that weren’t otherwise about branded merchandise. The “product” was the vision itself, “brought to you” by General Motors, etc. Mickey Mouse wasn’t so much a product as an animated version of Walt himself.

    As the universe of Disney films expanded, more and more of them made their way into the park, and independent corporate sponsorship receded, to the point that Disneyland today has very little visible non-Disney sponsorship — and is instead a giant commercial for Disney (Pixar, Lucasfilm, etc.) merchandise. The only thing that is “brought to you” is Disney and its “properties,” in the form of merchandise.

    Combining this with the point of the post, one could draw the inference that American culture has abandoned prior distinctions between entertainment as entertainment and shopping as shopping; entertainment is now shopping and shopping is now entertainment.

    If that’s our emerging world, then Cars isn’t quite the best Pixar metaphor; Wall-E works better. Some significant number of us are in the process of becoming the blobs that occupy the giant space vehicle in that movie that’s waiting for a sign of “life” to be found on (what I assume is) Earth. Life is nothing but endless consumption.

    If that’s right, then as that trend unfolds further it means that that trademark becomes *the* totalizing doctrine of IP, to a far greater extent than copyright.

  2. What delightfully bleak thoughts, Mike — thanks. I’m reading a book called The All-Consuming Century about the triumph of consumerism as the dominant ideology of the 20th Century (trumping any political or religious ideology). Critics of consumerism’s critics often point to the ways that we use goods to define our identities and stress autonomy principles, but I’m afraid I’ll probably end up siding with the Ralph Browns of the world.
    I’m working on a piece now about the overlap of “gamification” with IP & consumerism — there are some interesting connections re “waste” and “freedom” between games and entertainment goods.

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