Ambassador Hello Kitty and Dreamworlds for Tourists

May 20, 2008

hellokittyJapan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has named Hello Kitty, the famous feline character mass-produced by Sanrio Co., as its goodwill ambassador to China and Hong Kong. This move is part of the ministry’s “Visit Japan” campaign which aims to attract 10 million visitors each year. AP reports that tourists from China and Hong Kong accounted for 16.5% of visitors to Japan last year and are poised to become the second largest group of tourists after South Koreans. The billion-dollar Hello Kitty brand is wildly popular among these groups and Kitty-mania is being pushed throughout China. A multi-million dollar musical, “Hello Kitty’s Dream Light Fantasy” opened in Beijing in March and is scheduled to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, and the U.S. as part of a 3-year run. hellokitty dream

The use of a cartoon franchise to market and cross-sell is not new. Snoopy speaks for MetLife, while Yogi Bear hustles family campsites and Shrek peddles cereal. A stuffed animal or an animated cartoon does evoke warm and cuddly feelings. What IS specifically different about Hello Kitty is its employment by Japan to communicate with China, a country it invaded 70 years ago as part of an imperialist policy to take over China’s vast resources. Today, the takeover is not being accomplished with the military. It is done with merchandising, wherein consumer goods (serial, mass-produced, inexpensive and therefore attainable objects) are endowed with human qualities and ambassadorial charm. Hello Kitty’s pitch is the dream of world peace, harmony, and abundance through mass entertainment, consumption of spectacle, and tourist spending.

And this pitch IS trademarked. Artist Tom Sachs, who just installed his Hello Kitty sculptures at Lever House earlier this month (and famously substituted Hello Kitty for the Baby Jesus at Barney’s holiday windows back in 1994), never got permission to use the ambassador’s likeness and could face legal action. In New York Magazine, Sachs proclaims, “Hello Kitty is so much a part of our popular culture, I don’t think anyone really owns it. It’s something licensed by Sanrio, but I think her spirit and love and purity belong to all of us.” He could have been speaking for the Japanese Ministry. Maybe Sanrio will let this one slide: it does elevate Hello Kitty into a cultural icon, which is great for business.

Artist: “Louis Vuitton is trying to stop my Darfur campaign!”

May 7, 2008

plesner_starArtistic expression, social responsibility, and corporate property rights hardly ever (IF ever) mix. More often than not, the entity with the biggest money bag wins. A story has been slowly snowballing for the past couple weeks: Last October, Danish artist Nadia Plesner started an image-driven campaign called “Simple Living” to help raise public support for Darfur. Thinking strategically, Plesner looked at how much media attention Paris Hilton was getting and decided to sample and remix some of Hilton’s trademark accessories to redirect interest towards the undoubtedly more media-worthy cause of saving lives.

plesner_designThe result: Plesner designed this image (right) of a child from Darfur carrying Hilton’s signature chihuahua (privilege in pink) and an unmistakable Louis Vuitton Multicolore handbag designed by Takashi Murakami (with the “LV” monogram replaced by “SL”). Plesner is selling the image on T-shirts and posters from her website, and is donating all profits to Divest for Darfur. In February, she received a “cease and desist” order from Louis Vuitton’s lawyers. Surprised, she replied with an insistence on her freedom of expression. As blogged by Torrent Freak on April 25, she wrote:

“Sometimes recognizable objects are needed to express deeper meanings, and in their new form they become more than the objects themselves–they become art… I therefore stand by my freedom of expression–artistic and/or otherwise–and will continue my Simple Living campaign in order to raise money for the victims of Darfur.”

This did NOT enlighten the venerable fashion house of Louis Vuitton. NOR did it inspire Creative Director Marc Jacobs to seek out any forward-thinking collaborations along the lines of Takashi Murakami (artist/designer of the Multicolore pattern whose current show at the Brooklyn Museum has a fully-functional Louis Vuitton retail store in an attempt to blur the boundaries between art and commerce). No, this statement earned Plesner a copyright infringement lawsuit. According to Torrent Freak, Louis Vuitton now demands:

“$7,500 (5,000 Euro) for each day she continues to sell Simple Life products, $7,500 for each day their letter is published on the website and $7,500 a day for using the name “Louis Vuitton” on her website. In addition they want her to pay their lawyer costs and $15,000 to cover other expenses they have incurred in protecting their ‘intellectual property.'”

In Counterfeit Chic, Susan Scafidi offers some balanced insight into Louis Vuitton’s motivations:

“From a trademark lawyer’s perspective… unauthorized commercial distribution is a threat, whether or not the profits go to a good cause… Trademark owners who object aren’t necessarily grumpy atheists, just concerned about their marks. LV’s initial letter to Nadia reflects this tension between sympathizing with social concerns and protecting intellectual property… while Nadia’s stated intent was to criticize media attention to celebrities instead of tragedies, her profits from the t-shirts go to Divest for Darfur, an organization that opposes financial investment that ultimately funds genocide. The presence of LV trademarks on the t-shirt could mistakenly be read to imply that Louis Vuitton had made investments that were helping to fund genocide–not a message that the company would want broadcast, even in error.”

But what about the artist’s freedom of expression? Complicated. Scafidi continues:

“Intellectual property law establishes exclusive rights in specific expressions, but also attempts to maintain a balance between freedom of expression and creators’ rights.

In other words, at the same time that the law protects trademarks, it creates defenses for those who wish to use them in discussion… Different countries have different trademark laws and thus different defenses to unauthorized use. In the U.S., the general standard is “fair use,” including parody, while other jurisdictions have specific rules about what is or is not allowed in terms of expression…”

And Darfur? In an interview with New York Magazine (whose headline unfortunately misspelled Plesner’s name), the 26-year-old’s response to whether she has considered turning this story into a documentary, is heartening:

“I’m not sure if I want to do it because if I agree, I want it to be about Darfur. If it’s going to be about me and my trial, it doesn’t help my campaign so much. It was never my intention to stand in the spotlight myself. I just wanted to start a debate, and I’m trying to give my interviews in a way to show this.”

Sounds like my kind of human being. For more on fair use, copyright, and creative freedom, listen to this enlightening AND entertaining 20-minute TED Talk given by Larry Lessig in 2007.