In a move designed to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur, in 2008 a young fashion student took the decision to juxtapose an image of a starving child with a Louis Vuitton-inspired bag. The French fashion giant responded by sending in their lawyers in pursuit of crushing damages. This week, however, they lost not only the case, but the all-important PR battle.
Readers may recall the plight of Nadia Plesner, the Danish artist who in 2008 started a campaign to raise awareness of the ongoing genocide in Darfur and raise money for the countless victims there.
“I started this campaign because of the distorted way the media prioritizes between big and small world news,” Nadia told us. “How can Paris Hilton make more front covers than the genocide in Darfur? So, I ‘pimped’ a victim, to see if it worked. And it did!”
‘Pimp’ in this case meant the addition of a Louis Vuitton-inspired bag to Nadia’s artwork, provocatively placed on the arm of a starving child. It was used in her painting Darfurnica and also adorned t-shirts which were sold to raise money for charity.
While the artistic point of the juxtaposition – western excesses and consumer culture versus mass-murder and starvation – would provoke some to donate money to Nadia’s campaign, Louis Vuitton’s cold business reaction was both aggressive and disappointingly predictable. They sent in the lawyers to deal out some destruction of their own, claiming that Nadia had infringed their intellectual property rights.
This decision by the ‘strategists’ at Louis Vuitton, to stop what Nadia believed was her genuine right to freedom of expression, had trouble written all over it from the start. Nevertheless, had the company kept egos in check, maintained some perspective and got Nadia on their side, it might have actually managed to enhance its image. Instead the company fanned the flames. And then poured gas on them.
So, in common with some of the misguided entertainment industry efforts to crush the Jammie Thomas-type minnows of the file-sharing world (nothing like a David v Goliath battle to drum up sympathy for the other side), the whole thing was perfectly primed to backfire through sheer pig-headedness and lack of vision.
Following an initial case which Nadia lost, in February 2011 she discovered that Louis Vuitton had managed to get an ex parte order from a court in The Hague. In plain language that meant the case had already been heard behind her back without giving her a chance to defend herself. Nadia was informed that she was now being fined 5,000 euros per day.
Nadia fought back and in March filed her own lawsuit against Louis Vuitton in an attempt to have the decision overturned. Nadia reports that at the hearing in April, the fashion house got slippery. Their lawyers claimed that they never had a problem with the painting (Darfurnica), only with the use of the bag image in Nadia’s Simple Living campaign logo, a campaign she says was “created in response to the disappearing boundaries between the editorial and advertising departments in the media.”
However, when the judge asked Louis Vuitton’s lawyer why Darfurnica was mentioned in the lawsuit and subsequently outlawed on pain of 5,000 euros per day in fines, Nadia reports that he responded: “You shouldn’t read it like that.”
But it didn’t stop there. Louis Vuitton reportedly told the media that they were willing to drop the case, but behind the scenes Nadia’s lawyers had asked them to withdraw the ex parte order and they had refused.
The judge finished up the hearing by saying he would deliver his ruling early May and this week he was true to his word. The court ruled that the fines against Nadia – which had accumulated to over 500,000 euros – were unlawful. Louis Vuitton was further ordered to pay Nadia’s legal fees.
The fact that Louis Vuitton lost this case is a very, very good thing. Not because they had a hopeless case (trademarks do need to be sensibly protected) but because they deserved defeat for being so incredibly short-sighted.
One might have a little sympathy with the company for not wanting to be associated with genocide, but no sane human being thinks that Louis Vuitton has anything to do with the mess out in Darfur. Furthermore, the company’s supposed marketing geniuses should have been well aware how this would play out, realized they were onto a loser and let the whole issue fade away. Least said, soonest mended.
But instead, in what can only be described as a genius move to generate support for the little guy and reinforce the perception that big companies employ underhand tactics, they went behind Nadia’s back to get an ex parte order. They succeeded in delivering the legal equivalent of a sucker-punch and let’s face it, no one likes a coward.
Then the company rubbed salt in the wounds by demanding 5,000 euros per day in fines against someone who could never afford it – someone raising money for charity, no less. This is not how a company should go about protecting its image.
The net effect is that given some artistic license and taking Darfur out of the equation for just one second, the bag could easily represent corporate greed, its bullying tactics, and all that is bad about they way ‘big business’ is carried out.
The child, conversely, might be representative of the little guy – the Nadia’s of this world – who have their lives turned upside down to ‘protect’ the bottom lines of the big corporations.
While a victory for Nadia is good, given the background and bad PR generated by the case, even a victory for Louis Vuitton would have been a failure for them. Just because someone has the power and means to sue, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should. Some things are best left alone.