My former Mother Firm used to send demand letters on behalf of Rolls Royce telling people that they could not describe their product as the ROLLS ROYCE of trash compacters (for example). Apparently, according to today’s New York Times, they should have been sending Thank You letters. This advertising column reports on a trend of using unrelated brand names to sell brands. Examples include: comparing a SATURN sedan to GREY POUPON (to mean “not bland”), and labeling MILLER LITE “the WD-40 of Conversations” (beer as social lubricant, not grease).

As an ad-exec claims, “When you use a brand as a celebrity, you’re leveraging a well-known name to create an image of your own. […] It’s a very telegraphic way to communicate.”

Uh, exactly.

I can think of three reasons why brand owners should not do this: dilution, genericism, and tarnishment.

First, the conventional wisdom is that trademark dilution by “whittling” occurs when a previously known brand is juxtaposed with an unrelated product. The cognitive psychological underpinning of why dilution should be a tort is that the brand owner has successfully invested in brand recognition in a tight stimulus-response loop. The stimulus, namely, the brand, produces the response, namely, recall of that manufacturer’s product. The presence of usage of the brand to an unrelated product, e.g. BUICK shoe-polish, disrupts that tight stimulus-response loop. Google the string “Welkowitz Swann dilution” for more information.

The second danger is that this encourages the use of the brand to stand for the product-category, and that’s genericism. The usual suspects include aspirin, escalator, and thermos.

And finally, I would be worried about tarnishment by metonomy. This is when a brand name is used to denote a concept. You know it as “SPAM” (to mean unwanted e-mail, not the pork product) (this is not realy actionable, but the owners of SPAM will tell you it’s a bad thing).

The article indicates that these commercials have a “legal acknowledgement that appears in tiny type at the bottom of an ad,” which “suffices as compensation for the brand giving the piggyback ride […].”

No comment on that (unless you’re a client).