You probably saw something about this fly by over the weekend. You thought “huh?” and moved on to more productive things. Yes, I’m talking about the “Dumb Starbucks” store that opened briefly in Los Angeles. A number of people sent me links to stories about it, asking “Can they do this?” and I’m thinkin’ “Well, whoever they are just did it, didn’t they?” The more troubling question is why.
For the blissfully unaware, last weekend a facsimile Starbucks store opened in a strip mall in Los Feliz, Calif. It looked very much like a regular Starbucks, from the wall menus to the cups to the aprons, except that everywhere the word “Starbucks” or other branding term appeared, the word “Dumb” also appeared. Very soon there were long lines outside the place, which was giving away coffee.
What was it? The stunt didn’t have any immediately obvious meaning. There was a FAQ sheet posted in the store that said that “Dumb Starbucks” was legal because of “parody law.” It was just kind of, um . . . dumb. And everybody was all like, “What’s the real Starbucks gonna do?”
Turns out this was the “work” of this sad sack of shit named Nathan, an insufferable doe-eyed host of a Comedy Central show none of us have heard of called Nathan for You. I’ve watched several clips of past shows, in which Nathan dourly sets up various absurdist situations involving business, brands, and the like. None of it is particularly funny or even interesting. Most of it doesn’t even seem real.
Like this. The upshot here is that Dumb Starbucks got shut down on Monday. Not by Starbucks, which had issued a short statement that it was looking into the situation, but by the L.A. Health Department, for serving food without a permit. Comedy Central soon posted a short clip of Nathan saying that Dumb Starbucks’ “name meets the minimum requirements to be considered a parody under the law.”
Does it? To answer this, it’s key to understand that we’re not talking about copyrights here, but trademarks, so different rules apply. Copyright protects creative works, trademark law protects commercial names and symbols. In order for there to be trademark infringement, there has to be shown a likelihood of confusion, that people will think that the alleged infringer is actually related somehow to the trademark owner. And nobody, other than the proverbial “moron in a hurry” could possibly think that Dumb Starbucks is associated at all with the real Starbucks. People might be confused about every single other aspect of Dumb Starbucks, but not that. Why else would they say, “What is Starbucks gonna do?” Right?
The other legal concept that might be applicable here is that of brand dilution or tarnishment. This is a hideous, ugly, and thankfully little-used law that makes it illegal to use another’s mark in a way that lessens that mark’s “distinctiveness” or harms the mark’s “reputation.” Dilution and tarnishment only apply to famous marks, and Starbucks is nothing if not famous. But does the law apply?
I don’t think so. Dumb Starbucks doesn’t dilute the Starbucks famous mark; rather, it celebrates it. Maybe “celebrates” isn’t the right word here, but you get the idea. And tarnishment? Nope. It’s hard to see how this is even a comment on Starbucks. As the guys over at Freakonomics brilliantly pointed out, Dumb Starbucks isn’t so much a parody of Starbucks as it is a parody of parody. A parody of a freakin’ parody. When I first read that every rubber band in my brain snapped at the same time.
That’s almost enough to make me reconsider Nathan. But not quite. We love our conceptual art over here, when it’s done right. All too often, though, conceptual art, performance art, is the smug offering of someone desperate to prove that they’re smarter than you, but they lack the mental acuity, depth, and technical skills to pull it off. They’re not smarter than you. They’re little more than attention whores. And sad ones at that. Dada’s been done and Dada is dead.
Which is how this strikes me. Pointless. Like the Karadashians of humor and art. If you don’t pay attention to it, it will just go away, shorn of what little power it might have had. So let’s leave Dumb Starbucks right here, and never speak of it again.