My Shmadidas: Why Do They Blur Out Logos in Music Videos?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 30 2011 12:35 PM

My Shmadidas: Why Do They Blur Out Logos in Music Videos?


In the documentary-style video for Chris Brown's new single"Beautiful People," nearly every logo or trademark Brown's crew encounters hasbeen disguised with a blurry spot. As they ride their scooters around town, one guy sports a hoodie with a figure that'sbeen smudged out, while a low-hanging cloud seems to have settled aroundPharrell Williams' backpack, preventing us from identifying any brand name. Similarlyobscured logos can be found everywhere from recent videos like Wiz Khalifa's " Black and Yellow "to classics like Mase's " WelcomeBack " and Snoop Dogg's " Drop It Like It'sHot ." Why do they blur out logos in music videos?

There are various reasons. Exhibitors of music videos, like MTV, sometimes pixelatetrademarks because they'd prefer to have brands pay them for exposure. Directors,meanwhile, obscure them as a precaution against lawsuits like when EmersonElectric Company sued NBC after a Heroes character mangled herhand in one of its InSinkErator garbage disposals. In a similar case, Mercedes-Benzand other companies demanded that their logos be digitally removed from the shantytown scenes of Slumdog Millionaire a clean-up job that,according to director Danny Boyle, cost "tens of thousands of pounds."

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Still, it's not inherently against the law to flash thatNike swoosh or Apple apple in a music video. Legal action may be taken, butonly in certain cases. Trademarkinfringement occurs primarily when there is a "likelihood of confusion" thatthe product (in this case, the music video) originated from the trademark owner.Since a viewer is unlikely to think that either the New York Yankees orZildjian cymbals produced Brown's video, Brown can include their logos withoutfearing action on those grounds. However, the owners of widely recognizabletrademarks can forbid others from using those symbols on the grounds of " trademark dilution ,"which is when the use of a logo diminishes the strength of its association witha particular product, or when the trademark is featured in an unflatteringcontext (such as mangling the hero's hand).

Blurring out, pixelating or " greeking " logos (a.k.a. productdisplacement ) are quick and easy ways to avoid such legal headaches. Butthe simplest method tends to be avoiding the use of unlicensed trademarks inthe first place. In reality television, for example, stars may be encouraged todrink out of plastic cups rather than branded bottles.

Of course, artists can also seek permission to use thetrademark, and may even be paid for the trouble. Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video,for example, is full of product placement it features everything from Polaroid cameras in Gaga's hands to Diet Cokes in her hair. Someof the brands paid for the screen time (e.g. Miracle Whip), some were featuredas part of preexisting marketing partnerships with Gaga (e.g. Hewlett Packard),while still others were simply used with permission as unpaid placement (e.g.Wonder Bread).

As product placement and brand partnerships continue to multiply in music videos, it's increasingly rare to spot a logo without wonderingwhether the placement was paid. Whatever the story behind a product's inclusion,most artists and fans would prefer to avoid the distraction.

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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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