Not priceless

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It's easy to sympathize with MasterCard International, out to exact a price -- in court -- from anyone who dares hijack its great "Priceless" advertising idea for other purposes. It gets a winner of a campaign that gains notice in our now-you-see-it/now-you-don't pop culture, and free-loaders grab the idea for their own purposes. But there are limits, and they may have been reached with a recent suit against Ralph Nader.

The "priceless" formula in the MasterCard ads indeed was shamelessly picked up by North Woods Advertising, the Minneapolis agency creating the ads for Mr. Nader's run for president as the candidate of the Green Party. Shameless and, perhaps, illegal, it may be -- at least in the view of MasterCard-but to those in the political world such thievery is no big deal and sometimes brilliant marketing. One of the bright moments in Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came when the candidate blithely stole from Wendy's its classic Cliff Freeman/Dancer Fitzgerald Sample "Where's the beef?" line and put it to use for the Democratic Party. We don't recall Wendy's suing Mr. Mondale.

Advertising is fair game for comedians, satirists and social commentators -- and pols. But things are different when an ad theme is hijacked for use in advertising. Even here some discretion is wise before setting the lawyers loose, however. Milk marketers might be justified if they chose in 1996 to sue People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which seized Bozell's milk mustache idea and made it a urine mustache in ads meant to shock the public and pillory a pharmaceutical company. Mr. Nader's "priceless" ads are not ugly travesties, however, and he is only too happy to pillory MasterCard for its heavy-handedness.

In this case, it would have been better to keep the legal swords in their scabbards.

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