How original is the idea of dressing up people as dollar bills and building an ad campaign around the theme of putting your money to work?
That's the question at the root of a lawsuit challenging First Tennessee Bank's widely seen advertising campaign featuring working "Money Men." J.B. Oxford and Company, a struggling online discount brokerage firm with Nashville connections, charges copyright infringement and unfair competition based on its own "loafing money" ad campaign.
But the CEO of First Tennessee's ad agency, Michael Thompson of Memphis-based Thompson and Company, suggests it's the courts that are being overworked, not the ad campaign.
"The lawsuit is totally without merit," said Thompson. "We conceived it, and we're proud of it. We didn't copy anything."
Thompson said there could well be other variants of human-money ads, just as a characterization of a man in the moon might be widely used to sell telescopes. "We just executed it," he said.
First Tennessee marketing officials declined to comment.
The lawsuit was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Nashville although First Tennessee is based in Memphis. J B. Oxford CEO Christopher Jarratt and President James G. Lewis live in Nashville and are partners in Third Capital Partners, which bought a financial interest in J.B. Oxford in 1998. The lawsuit was filed by George Barrett of the Nashville firm of Barrett, Johnston & Parsley. Barrett is a prominent labor advocate and Democrat who filed a landmark 1968 lawsuit challenging Tennessee's dual system of higher education.
The J.B. Oxford lawsuit claims that in 1999 the company and its advertising agencies created a national print advertising campaign using a money character and spent more than $10 million to run it on network television, on cable, and in national newspapers and magazines. J.B. Oxford now "owns" the good will and trademark rights to the currency character and the slogan "Put Your Money to Work," the lawsuit says. It demands that First Tennessee, the lone defendant, stop running its working-money ads and pay unspecified damages.
In one of J.B. Oxford's print ads, a dollar punctured by a grinning human face eats pizza and loafs on a couch. The caption reads, "Ever wish your money would get to work?" Another loafing dollar bill parties with a crowd of girls at a bar. J.B. Oxford's campaign always used a $1 bill. First Tennessee's features bills of different denominations. Both campaigns use the expression "Put Your Money to Work."
A computer search of newspapers by the Flyer found 122 uses of the expression in various news stories, business advice columns, and even horoscopes in the last two years.
First Tennessee's working-money ads began running in 2001. "Money Men" dressed as paper currency toss souvenirs to spectators at Grizzlies and Redbirds games and star in a series of humorous print and television ads.
"I don't think it's any coincidence," said Jarratt. "Everyone in the U.S. had an opportunity to view these ads. There is absolutely no question it's identical. First Tennessee has known about this for a while and done nothing about it."
J.B. Oxford is a publicly traded company listed in The Wall Street Journal's Nasdaq small cap issues. Its headquarters is in Beverly Hills, and the company says it has branches in New York and Minneapolis. According to its most recent financial report, it had $14 million in revenues and $19 million in expenses in the first nine months of 2003 and has lost money for 10 straight quarters.
"We've had a tough couple of years here, but things are turning around," said Jarratt.
J.B. Oxford registered the copyright for its "loafing money" television and print ads on October 28, 2003, one month before the lawsuit was filed. The registration says the ads were created by a firm called Think New Ideas and a related firm called Answerthink. Think New Ideas was a publicly traded company that is now defunct. Answerthink is a publicly traded company offering a variety of business services.
J.B. Oxford's stock price soared to $197 in 1999 but is now just over $3. According to SEC filings and press accounts, the company was fined $2 million in a government securities investigation in 2000 and is seeking an extension on a $500,000 payment due as part of that settlement. This year it was targeted along with nine other brokerage firms by New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer for facilitating improper trading in mutual funds.