MasterCard vs. Ralph Nader

Could a consumer advocate's bid for the presidency be derailed by a credit card company?

Published August 17, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Apparently there are some things money can't buy, including a sense of humor. How else to explain MasterCard's decision to sue Ralph Nader and his presidential campaign for $15 million for running a biting political ad on TV?

The Nader ad is a flagrant parody of what MasterCard refers to as its "famous and renowned 'Priceless' advertising campaign" -- the ads that tempt us with such intangibles as "a day where all you have to do is breathe" followed by the word "priceless," and then drives home our addiction to consumerism with the tag line "There are some things money can't buy, for everything else there's MasterCard."

The Nader ad puts a silly spin, reminiscent of the old "Saturday Night Live," on the concept, by showing George W. Bush enjoying a meal as the voice-over intones: "grilled tenderloin for fundraiser, $1,000 a plate;" then Al Gore takes center stage as the voice asserts: "campaign ads filled with half-truths, $10 million;" and then we go back to a Bush shot as the voice informs us: "promises to special interest groups, over $10 billion." The tag line is "There are some things money can't buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last." Nader is arguing that with his paltry $945,219 in campaign contributions (compared to, say, Bush's $93 million), he can't buy enough TV air time to get on voters' radar and therefore into the debates. Of course, the ad could backfire big time; if MasterCard wins the suit, the campaign coffers will be emptied many times over.

Surely, the ad would tickle the funny bone of anyone with even a modicum of wit. I can just imagine the knee-slapping that went on when the Nader campaign first considered the spot. But MasterCard, which filed the trademark infringement suit on Tuesday in a U.S. District Court in New York, has failed to see the comedic value of the Nader ads. In fact, last week the company's counsel sent a note to the Nader campaign explaining that "MasterCard has no involvement in the presidential aspirations of Mr. Nader" and that "consumers may be left with the mistaken impression that MasterCard is now somehow involved with or endorsing the candidacy of Mr. Nader."

Do the folks at MasterCard really think the public is that stupid? Don't they realize that imitation is the highest form of flattery and that some less brand-savvy consumers (like me) recognized and appreciated the copied format of the ad, even though we couldn't remember what the original spot advertised?

The legal complaint, which charges Nader's camp with copyright and trademark infringement as well as "unfair competition" and "deceptive trade practices," takes issue with such details as the use by the VoteNader site of the word "priceless" in the URL, which points to the ad. But it comes back several times to "the scores of millions of dollars" spent on its Priceless ads. In essence, the company is concerned not that a foolhardy public will confuse the underfunded Nader with a "leader in the payment card field," but that the Priceless campaign won't be worth what they paid for it now that Nader has parodied it. If only they realized the priceless attention Nader is paying their ad.

The Nader campaign is holding a press conference about the suit on Thursday and would not comment, but Jamie Love, who works with Nader on the Consumer Project on Technology wrote to his Random-bits mailing list: "I just saw Ralph, and he said, 'I guess MasterCard doesn't think the word "priceless" is really priceless.'"

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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