Merchandisers Rush to Trademark All Things 'Coronavirus'
It’s not every day that there’s a global pandemic that reaches every single facet of human life, transcending borders, languages and politics. So, it’s only natural that a few opportunistic apparel and merchandising companies are looking to trademark the coronavirus for their own gain.
A USA Today article revealed that there have been more than 140 trademark applications filed to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since early March, aka when things started to really ramp up in the U.S.
One guy in California reportedly is trying to trademark “Love in the Time of Coronavirus.” A guy in Florida is trying to make “COVID-19 Baby” onesies to hit the market in nine months. The company that makes the card game What Do You Meme? filed a trademark to create “Social Distancing. The Game.”
It’s no different than the way people capitalize on memes or sports micromoments that flood social media and highlight videos, etching themselves into our collective consciousness for a few moments and then disappearing as quickly as they came. In those moments though, there are quick-thinking marketers to try to squeeze a few bucks out of the fleeting moment in the form of a permanent or semi-permanent item. Usually it’s a T-shirt.
“With big news stories, you usually get a few things filed, like the Philly Special at the Super Bowl—10 people filed for that,” intellectual property attorney Josh Gerben told USA Today. “Most of them are just regular people off the street with an idea for a T-shirt bearing a funny or clever phrase.”
You might immediately picture some random person watching the news and scrambling on his laptop to the Patent and Trademark website, but it goes all the way to big-name brands and corporations.
The USA Today story also reported that Vice Media filed a trademark for “Shelter in Place,” which it would use for “audio-visual programs … in the field of pandemic infectious diseases and its global economic, political and social implications.” NBC Universal filed on March 27 to trademark “Together starts here,” a variation of its related slogans “Comedy starts here” and “Music starts here.”
Even Miley Cyrus’s people are trying to trademark “Bright Minded,” which is the name of her Instagram Live series she’s been doing while isolating at home.
It might seem a little oogy at first to capitalize on something so horrific and devastating, but if the worst someone does is make a T-shirt or something, it’s not hurting anyone. Especially in the case of Cyrus’s project, which doesn’t actually use the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” Everyone still needs to do their jobs and make a living.
“She’s an artist, adapting to the situation and showing there will be a business element to what she’s doing here,” Gerben said to USA Today. “It shows people walking that tightrope of not being overtly capitalistic but still running business.”
That said, there will undoubtedly be some merchandise like T-shirts with slogans that are in poor taste. You can picture those in boardwalk shops or pop-up merchandise stands at U.S. Landmarks (when those things reopen).
Plenty of people think they’re the first to come up with the idea for hats and T-shirts that say “coronavirus survivor.” And some of them, like Pomona College senior Alec Sweet, don’t think they’re purposely doing harm.
“We would hope to make some money,” Sweet told USA Today. “And at the same time, my partners and I are strongly leaning toward donating a portion of all sales toward a charity that is helping with the coronavirus crisis.”
That’s all well and good, but it brings into question where we draw an ethical line between something that is topical and fun and something that is tone deaf. When do memes become mockery? What is out of bounds? In a place like the U.S., the court of public opinion would likely decide by voting with their dollars, purchasing the merchandise with more evergreen and tasteful messaging, possibly from more well-known entities that have clearer paths to donating money to good causes.
No slam on ambitious college kids looking to sell T-shirts out of their dorms, but marketing anything related to the COVID-19 crisis and long-lasting aftermath with positivity and a sense of humor will take some real finesse. We're all in uncharted territory here.