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Last year, Michael Kline told two brand managers for Coca-Cola Classic that they could sue their company’s calorie-free soda brand, Coca-Cola Zero, for “taste infringement.” Really. And it’s all on camera, too. But lest you think Kline should be sent back to law school — where they teach that class about how it’s a bad idea to sue your own company for nonexistent intellectual property violations — remember not to believe everything you see on television, YouTube, or even a Coke Web site. Those are the venues where you can watch Kline, a senior litigation counsel for intellectual property in Coke’s legal department, and some of his unwitting colleagues listen to the bizarre grievances of a pair of brand managers who claim that no-calorie Coke Zero tastes so much like sugary Coke Classic that they should be able to bring some kind of legal action. In the commercials, Kline and in-house lawyers Elizabeth Finn Johnson and James Koelemay Jr., as well as attorney Robert Cowan, react with varying degrees of amusement, disbelief and, in Johnson’s case, incredulous outrage at the suggestion of the brand managers. “You don’t have valid claim!” Johnson shouts at one point. What the lawyers didn’t know at the time was that the litigious brand managers were really improvisational actors Bob Beuth and Bill Glass of Los Angeles, that they were being filmed, and that this was all part of a marketing campaign to promote Coke Zero. In the old days, the lawyers would have been victims of Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera.” In today’s language, the Coke lawyers were “punk’d.” The resulting ads have run during “American Idol” and the NCAA basketball tournament; more are slated to run during the Final Four. The ad scheme is the brainchild of Coke’s marketing team and Miami advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The three video clips of Coke lawyers and one of an actor posing as a lawyer on YouTube had, as of press time, gotten almost 45,000 views. The goal of all this legal shtick: to revamp Coke Zero’s image. The drink has a new black label and is being marketed toward men in the 18-to-34-year-old age bracket — men who might not drink Diet Coke because a “diet” drink is perceived as feminine, but who could be attracted by the humorous marketing of the calorie-free Coke Zero. Susan McDermott, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola North America, says that when the drink first launched, ads focused on selling a brand image and the drink’s “personality,” then began looking for a way to show that Coke Zero offered the taste of real Coke — without the calories. “As they looked at different ways to expand the campaign, they thought, �Maybe we should sue ourselves,’ ” she says. When Coke marketing execs decided on the litigation theme, they tapped the previously unidentified acting skills of James Dudukovich, Coke’s marketing counsel for North America. His job was to persuade six of Coke’s in-house attorneys and two outside lawyers to offer legal advice to a pair of brand managers who wanted to sue their own company. “As you might imagine, when the general concept was presented, I got very nervous because it’s a sensitive thing to execute,” Dudukovich says, ticking off potential problems: fraud, ethical conduct issues, code of business obligations. The end result: Dudukovich targeted unsuspecting lawyers who he thought would provide amusing on-camera reactions while — mostly — keeping their cool. He then prepped the actors, educating them about legal terms, hot-button issues, and the practice areas of the lawyers they’d be duping. Kline says he was lured in when Dudukovich asked him to meet with some brand managers on an intellectual property issue. Dudukovich offered few details, saying only that he didn’t want to “prejudice” his colleague’s views. “To be quite honest with you, these guys came across as very legitimate,” Kline says, recalling that the actors wore company ID badges. Though he later got suspicious, he says, “They were pretty good at selling a ludicrous proposition.” The segment featuring Johnson, senior counsel for litigation and employment, proves she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Johnson gets increasingly frustrated as the managers press her for ways to sue another part of the company. The lawyers all learned they’d been punk’d about 20 minutes into the interviews. Dudukovich says the meetings were spread out over two days and all the attorneys were asked to sign a release immediately after learning they’d been punk’d.
Janet Conley is an associate editor with the Daily Report, the ALM publication in which a longer version of this story first appeared.

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