50 Cent Sues Taco Bell Over Value-Menu Stunt

Rapper Not Amused by Request to Change His Name

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Not all publicity is good publicity, at least according to 50 Cent. The rapper, whose real name is Curtis Jackson, filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell yesterday for using his name and likeness without permission. Mr. Jackson claims trademark dilution, false designation of sponsorship, unjust enrichment and a violation of his civil rights, among other claims. He's seeking $4 million in damages.
50 Cent
50 Cent Credit: AP

Taco Bell, which recently launched a value menu, has been reaching out to rap audiences. In a letter addressed to 50 Cent -- which Mr. Jackson claims was first sent to the press -- Taco Bell invited him to change his name to 79 Cent, 89 Cent or 99 Cent, after the prices on the new menu. As part of the stunt, Taco Bell suggested that he appear at a location, rap his order and sign off with one of the "names." Taco Bell would in turn donate $10,000 to the charity of his choice. Mr. Jackson claims he later received a copy of the letter through the William Morris Agency.

Far-fetched proposal
"It's publicity they couldn't have gotten, because he would very likely not have agreed to endorse it even if they paid him," said Mr. Jackson's lawyer, Peter D. Raymond of Reed Smith. "He doesn't tend to endorse those kinds of things, low-end fast food."

The rapper has, for instance, endorsed Hillary Clinton and VitaminWater.

Mr. Raymond added that his client has been blasted in a number of blogs for "selling out" following Taco Bell's letter. "There's a great deal of consumer confusion," he said.

"We made a sincere, good-faith offer to 50 Cent to donate $10,000 to the charity of his choice and proposed that he change his name to either 79, 89 or 99 Cent for one day by rapping his order at any Taco Bell," Rob Poetsch, the chain's spokesman, said in a statement. "We would have been very pleased to make the $10,000 charitable donation."

The company declined to comment further.

Dubious appeal to rap culture
Robbie Vorhaus, a crisis and reputation expert, said the move was condescending, a big mistake and could result in lost business.

"They certainly don't understand rap culture, they certainly don't understand the audience," he said. "What they don't realize is 50 Cent is a real person, but a real business, too."

On its website, Taco Bell is promoting its value menu with the slogan "Why Pay Mo?" The site also has a "rhyme generator" and a "rap name creator." Based on your first initial, gender, favorite item and appetite, you might wind up being called something like "Lady E Cheesy."

Mr. Vorhaus said Taco Bell needs to issue 50 Cent an apology.

"Just as you build brand equity, you can lose that brand equity, and in the restaurant business one good customer will bring you another good customer, but one bad customer will lose you 100," he said. "They can't afford to be losing."

Cultural sensitivity aside, Taco Bell seems to have picked on the wrong rapper. This is the second trademark-related suit Mr. Jackson has filed in the last year. He holds a handful of trademarks protecting his right to use the 50 Cent name on products ranging from electronics to beanie caps.

He also seems to have a good handle on his audience, and their appeal to advertisers.

"As a result of his popularity and renown, Jackson has established a first-class brand with the critical Generation X and Generation Y demographics, for which advertisers are willing to pay substantial premiums," according to the suit. "Jackson regularly receives financially lucrative offers to license use of his name, likeness and trademarks to promote a wide variety of products."

Not a first for Yum Brands
Taco Bell and its Yum Brands-portfolio siblings are infamous for using free publicity to generate buzz. The taco chain scored a highly visible, yet low-priced tie-in to last year's World Series when it promised "free tacos for America" after Red Sox rookie Jacoby Ellsbury stole second base during Game Two.

KFC and Pizza Hut have attempted to get free publicity out of stunts attached to other high-profile sporting events. In March, Pizza Hut offered free pizza to the entire campus of any bottom-seeded team to reach the Final Four (which has never been done). KFC offered pop singer Rihanna free hot wings and a donation to charity if she and Chris Brown returned to a local restaurant after pics were published of the two on a date, of sorts. The chicken chain also offered to make a $260,000 donation to its own educational foundation in the name of any player or entertainer who flapped his or her "wings" in the end zone during the Super Bowl. There weren't any takers.

Why a 50 Cent rap would be worth just $10,000 remains to be seen.
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