U.S. Christian goods spoof commercial brands

Sunday, December 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Christian stores in the United States have just the Christmas gift for Facebook fans: a "Jesus Christ wants to be your friend" T-shirt that mimics the design of the social networking site.

And what is there for Americans who like shirts from teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch? A Christian copycat that transforms the chain's name to "Abreadcrumb & Fish," a reference to the biblical story of Jesus miraculously feeding the multitudes.

American retailers sell $4.6 billion worth of Christian products annually, and some are spoofs or spinoffs of commercial logos or brand names. Many such goods are illegal, trademark attorneys say, but companies often don't put up a fight for fear of being labeled anti-faith.

There are "iPray" hats to wear while listening to your iPod. Imitators include Christian versions of the Subway restaurant logo, the "got milk?" advertising campaign and the "intel inside" sticker that's on millions of computers.

The "HOPE" poster from Barack Obama's presidential campaign — which itself was the subject of a copyright fight between an artist and The Associated Press over the use of an Obama photo — was Christianized, with an image of Jesus replacing the president.

Church marketing consultant Brad Abare doesn't like the stuff. He calls it "Jesus Junk."

Trademark attorney Michael G. Atkins of Seattle said parodies of commercial trademarks are protected under the First Amendment, but the religious products generally don't fall into that category.

"You could take Microsoft and change their logo around to make fun of Microsoft, and that would be legal," he said. "But I can't use the Microsoft logo to promote my Christian theme because there's no real connection there. That's illegal."

One of the major firms in the field, Arkansas-based Kerusso, sells Christian-themed items and asks customers to report anyone who rips off its original designs. Its products are available in more than 7,000 stores nationwide.

Yet some of Kerusso's products are copycats of corporate brands and logos known worldwide.

The company sells the Facebook shirt for $17.99, plus one where Apple's iPod is tweaked into "iPray." For the same price you can buy an "Amazing Grace" shirt that resembles the "American Idol" TV logo. Kerusso's Abercrombie & Fitch copycat is labeled a "classic" on its Web site.

Kerusso CEO Vic Kennett said he occasionally gets complaints from companies whose logos are parodied, and Kerusso generally changes those designs or discontinues the merchandise. Kerusso altered its red "Jesus Christ — Eternally Refreshing" T-shirt after Coca-Cola complained the design too closely resembled its well-known script logo.

Kinnett views the commercial spoofs — which only make up 15 percent or so of Kerusso's merchandise — as modern-day parables.

"If Jesus were here today would he make parody T-shirts? I doubt it," Kinnett said. "But in his day, he did use parables. He used things that were common and recognized in everyday life to make a point or say something with a deeper meaning."

But Abercrombie & Fitch attorney Reid Wilson said the "Abreadcrumb & Fish" design is a trademark infringement, and the clothing chain sends cease-and-desist letters anytime such products show up.

Atkins, the trademark expert, said few companies are willing to make a stink.

"I think you have a real tension between the legal department and the PR department," he said. "(Large companies) are very sensitive to looking like they are anti-Christian, so they are very restrained in going after the wrongdoers."

Children are bombarded by advertising from a young age, said Baxter Chism, a United Methodist pastor in Dadeville, and many adults can quote more easily from commercials than from the Bible.

"I consider this a window of opportunity to proclaim Christ to people by using a topic they understand," he said.


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