Under the Influence

Why this major brand's name was called "dyslexic cheekiness."

The use of profanity in marketing has resulted in an upsurge in Vulgar Trademarks. Four-letter words aren’t just sought out by small, feisty companies looking for attention anymore, but by some of the largest advertisers in the world. Is it obscene, or is it free speech?
(Image Source: Daily Billboard)

In both the U.S and Canada, the guidelines say a trademark cannot be scandalous, obscene, immoral or derogatory.

Therefore, you might think vulgar trademarks are rare.

You would be wrong.

Between 2003 and 2015, the U.S. Trademark office has rejected over 2,000 applications for word trademarks it has deemed "immoral" or "scandalous."

For example, there are over 90 pending applications for trademarks that feature the F-bomb. Including "Proud as F" for an entertainment company. "Calm the F down" for a tea company." "Cluster F" for a beer brand and "F-Yeah!" for an athletic apparel company.

There is a clothing retailer in Britain that had a contentious brand name for many years.

It was called FCUK. Which stood for French Connection United Kingdom.

The French Connection apparel company began in 1972 - one year after the film of the same name was released.

In the mid 1990s, the store was having trouble launching in North America because it didn't have any brand name awareness. So the company hired adman Trevor Beattie to come up with a campaign idea. The store didn't have a big advertising budget, so Beattie began searching for something that would give the store a lot of free press attention.

One day while at French Connection for a meeting, he happened to see a fax come in from the Hong Kong division. It was marked "from FCHK to FCUK."

Meaning: from French Connection Hong Kong to French Connection United Kingdom.

That acronym - FCUK - caught his attention. At first glance, it looked profane. But it really wasn't.

So in 1997, Beattie re-branded the stores FCUK. The company trademarked the name and posted billboards with the tagline "FCUK Fashion."

The press labeled it scandalous. The Church of England protested. Britain's Advertising Standards Authority insisted on vetting their ads - a first in the fashion category.

The Economic Times called FCUK "dyslexic cheekiness." But that acronym put French Connection UK on the map - and did it with outrage as opposed to advertising money.

Profits doubled in just a few years. 20 per cent of the products the store sold had FCUK on the merchandise.

Controversy fuelled the brand.

The trademark was put to the test in the early days of websites when French Connection sued an Internet firm called First Consultants UK. The Internet company had secured the web domain FCUK.com. They wanted it because the acronym was used in Internet circles as an alternative to the common expletive - and the slightly off-kilter spelling helped avoid filters and controls on websites.

The lawyers for French Connection said the Internet company was exploiting the "goodwill" of the fashion company's trademark.

The judge said "How can you talk about goodwill in connection with such a tasteless and obnoxious campaign?"

Eventually, French Connection won the case.

Across the Atlantic, the FCUK branding gave the store instant visibility.

But the controversy continued. In 2004, the American Family Association lobbied the US Trademark Office to reject the FCUK registration. And in 2006, the trademark was challenged again in Britain on the grounds it was contrary to accepted principles of morality.

Not long after, the fashion company finally dropped FCUK.

But the brand has a new Instagram account. The reason: The chain is bringing the old logo back. Riding the '90s fashion trend, merchandise branded with the controversial anagram is currently for sale at Urban Outfitters.

News of that stirred up the same old question: Is FCUK a vulgarity or just four innocent letters?

For more stories about Vulgar Trademarks, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)