What’s that sound or smell? Maybe a Trademark!
While most of us know a slogan, logo or name can be trademarked, how about registering a trademark for a sound, jingle or smell? Registering a sound or smell with the US Trademark Office is difficult, but not impossible. Harley-Davidson famously tried for years to trademark the purr (“potato-potato-potato”) sound of its V-twin engine, only to be locked up in legal limbo for so long that it withdrew its application.
By 1998, only 23 sound trademarks had been registered in the United States—to put that in context, by that year 730,000 total trademarks had been granted. Since then, a few companies have been able to register so-called “sound marks,” but they still are relatively rare—but not as rare or strange as “smell” trademarks. Who can’t identify that sweet doughy fragrance wafting from an open a jar of Play-Doh®? In May 2018, Hasbro trademarked Play-Doh®’s “smell.”, maintaining that its sweet scent long had set it apart from other clay competitors. Interestingly, Play-Doh®’s recipe (and its aroma) has not changed much since it was first released in 1956.
Many sound trademarks originate from the entertainment industry. One of the most recognizable showbiz logos is MGM’s roaring lion. MGM used at least five different lions for the film company’s logo over the years—but only one lion named, Jackie, produced the “registered” roar. As a spoof, Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM Productions used “Mimsie,” a stage cat, for its new logo, whose “meow” mimicked the MGM lion’s hearty roar. Apparently, Mimsie’s “meow” had to be added post-production because the cat refused to perform for the cameras. Photographers caught her yawning and overlaid the now-trademarked sound owned by Twentieth Century Fox.
Other sound trademarks harken back to legendary characters from movies, television and commercial advertising. Who doesn’t connect the menacing, robotically enhanced breathing with the Darth Vader character from Star Wars? The trademark certificate describes the “sound of rhythmic mechanical human breathing created by breathing through a scuba tank regulator.” Now we know why Darth Vader is from the “Dark Side”—obviously because lawyers were involved. The legal force was with Lucas Films when it registered the sound of a lightsaber, describing it as “an oscillating humming buzz created by combining feedback from a microphone with a projector motor sound.” Now I hear it!
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. protects the intellectual property of the author of Tarzan, including a trademark for the jungle hero’s yell memorialized by actor, Johnny Weissmuller, in the original TV series. While Burroughs described Tarzan’s yowl in his book as the “victory cry of the bull ape,” the trademark certificate describes “a series of approximately ten sounds, alternating between the chest and falsetto registers of the voice,” in a specific octave pattern.
Maybe not as heroic, but nonetheless an endearing TV character, might read in the script “an annoying grunt”—yet we all know and love that grunt as Homer Simpson’s familiar trademarked, “D’oh.” And when you hear that quirky quack of the duck, “Aflac,” notify American Family Insurance because you may be hearing a trademark violation!
In TV advertising, not all sounds have to be as well-known as the Jolly Green Giant’s “Ho-Ho-Ho” to function as a trademark. The official trademark certificate describes the “sound of a deep, male, human-like voice saying, “Ho-Ho-Ho” in even intervals with each “Ho” dropping in pitch,” emanating from an exuberant verdant giant pitching frozen veggies.
Similarly, Pillsbury owns the sound trademark in a “child-like human giggle,” triggered by poking the tummy of the plump Poppin’ Fresh Doughboy. More than 50 actors auditioned to do the voiceover for the Doughboy—but actor, Boris Badenov, from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, was the first voice and a hit from the start. In the first three years of the Doughboy’s debut, the giggle had an 87% brand recognition from consumers, and Poppin’ Fresh was receiving 200 fan letters a week.
On a local note, Menards registered a trademark for its ubiquitous musical TV jingle, “Save big money at Menards”! And who doesn’t recognize the cheery melodies blasting from ice cream trucks, recalling sweet memories of carefree, youthful summers? You can’t “own” the melodies, “Turkey in the Straw,” “The Entertainer,” or “Camptown Races,” right? WRONG! These melodies are trademarked by Beville, Ltd. for use with its Smart Scoop brand ice cream makers.
Finally, just in case you are bored or tired after shopping at Menards and gorging on a decadent ice cream treat, or you just want to drive yourself bonkers, here’s a link to a full hour (60 minutes) of the trademarked iconic ticking of the 60 Minutes stop watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMwBE-FEgco. Take a listen for yourself.