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ATLANTA � Last year lawyer 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 Dalton 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 a 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 and Bogusky, which also employed so-called “viral” marketing � using a social network such as YouTube in the hopes of getting viewers to pass an offbeat, indirectly commercial video along to friends � on behalf of Burger King. In Burger King’s case, the www.subservientchicken.com Web site, in which a man in a chicken suit follows viewers’ commands to dance, jump and so on � all to make the point that at Burger King, you can get chicken any way you like it � garnered between 15 million and 20 million hits in its first week online, according to Wired.com. 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 legal theme doesn’t stop with the video clips. The Coke Zero Web site offers surfers the opportunity to “Sue a Friend” for various forms of taste infringement, including ringtone theft and using the same pickup lines; it also offers a “Ruin This Man’s Day” button, by which viewers can electronically harass an image of an already harassed-looking lawyer as he drafts litigation that would force Coke Zero to “stop using real Coca-Cola taste.” 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.
The marketing counsel’s job was to convince 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.

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. ‘LUDICROUS PROPOSITION’ 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 convince 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. Kline was directed to a conference room he’d never seen before � a room, he’d find out later, that had a large two-way mirror and a fake panel on one wall. “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.” His video clip starts when one of the actors says, “So, do you think we as the Coke brand would have a case against the Coke Zero brand because they’ve infringed upon our taste?” There’s a long pause, while Klein arranges and rearranges his face and chews his lip. Finally, suppressing a smile, he says, “It’s a novel theory.” The actor presses on: “What can we do � to really bring this to light and shut it down?” Kline says he responded, “Now we really wouldn’t want to do this, but just for fun here in our own four walls, here’s what we could do. �” But the video clip shows only his next statement: “One of the things that I would do is consider possibly threatening these folks with a preliminary injunction.” Later, Kline asks, “What would your proposed end-game be?” Actor: “That [the Coke Zero brand team] were crushed and that their director � was in the fetal position under the copier, crying. Crying.” The segment ends with a close-up of Kline’s incredulous face. VARYING DEGREES OF FRUSTRATION While Kline keeps his cool, others have a little more trouble hiding their feelings. Koelemay, the company’s senior counsel for bottler relations, looks as if he’s stifling a laugh throughout the video. Trying to dodge the intra-company suit idea, he suggests the managers could sue Coke Zero managers personally, “but neither Jim [Dudukovich] nor I can represent you.” The segment featuring Johnson, senior counsel for litigation and employment, proves she doesn’t suffer fools lightly. It opens with one of the actors, having explained that he’s concerned about taste infringement, asking, “What would be the equivalent to a corporate kick in the [expletive bleeped out]?” Johnson gets increasingly frustrated as the managers press her for ways to sue another part of the company. “This product is a hundred and some years old,” says one, pointing to the red Coke classic can. Pointing to the Coke Zero can, he adds, “We’re talking about a young product. You don’t think it’s age discrimination?” Johnson, holding each can, explodes: “It’s not a person! Title VII doesn’t cover these things!” Months after her summer duping, Johnson is still laughing about it. She says she wasn’t really surprised by the bizarre nature of the questions, since she often deals with employees who don’t understand what constitutes a viable claim. “I have had some pretty out-there questions asked by company employees,” she says. “My personal favorite is this: ‘Does the company require that we wear underwear?’” What did concern her, she says, was that the longer the “brand managers” talked, the more ridiculous their rationale got. “This is the most valuable trademark in the world, and these are the guys who are stewards of it,” she says. For outside counsel Robert Cowan, it all started when Dudukovich � whose wife went to law school with Cowan � called to ask if he could inject some “small-town lawyer sensibility” into a dispute between some of the company’s brand managers. In the video, Cowan, whose practice includes mediation, says with obvious frustration: “There’s got to be something that you guys can find as common ground to benefit everyone. There has to be.” One of the actors replies: “I think the best thing is to, you know, wipe them off the face of the earth.” The clip ends with a shot of Cowan’s stunned face. Janet Conley is an associate editor with Fulton County Daily Report, a Recorder affiliate based in Atlanta.

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