My Life With Oreos

Long ago, we received our first letter from Nabisco informing us that Oreo was their most valued trademark, and that we would not be able to call our flavor Oreo Mint. We could however, they said, call it "Mint with Oreos."
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It is of course a high honor to be asked to blog for the Huffington Post. And although they're not exactly haute cuisine, I thought I'd begin with my relationship... as it's developed over the years... with Oreo cookies.

Oreo Mint was the first unusual flavor that Ben & Jerry's came out with. It was a runaway hit at the old gas station where we first started. When we began packing our ice cream in pints, Oreo Mint was a top seller. Jerry, who was making the ice cream, didn't much like the flavor because the Oreos would clog up the filling machine. He'd have to put on long rubber gloves and stick his hands down into a long freezing hopper full of ice cream to clear them out.

Before long we received our first letter from the Nabisco Corporation's legal department informing us that Oreo was their most valued trademark, and that we would not be able to call our flavor Oreo Mint. We could however, they said, call it "Mint with Oreos." Seemed like splitting hairs to us but we changed our packaging accordingly. All went well for quite awhile until apparently there was some turnover in the Legal Department at Nabisco who sent us another piece of legal gobbledy-gook saying that they appreciated the incredible quantities that we were using, but that Oreo was their most valued trademark, and under no circumstances could we pluralize their trademark. Whereupon we sent them a copy of the first letter. No matter. They insisted, and we changed our packaging to "Mint with Oreo Cookies." All went well until we sought kosher certification. We were informed by the Rabbi that Oreos had lard in them and under no circumstances could Oreos be deemed Kosher. And a bunch of our shareholders wanted us to dump Oreos because Nabisco had been acquired by RJ Reynolds, the cigarette guys. So we finally dumped Oreos altogether and the flavor became "Mint Chocolate Cookie."

Still, it was hard for me to disconnect totally.

I rekindled my relationship with Oreos when it literally came to me in a dream that the best way of communicating the complexities of the discretionary federal budget, and how it could be changed, was by using stacks of Oreo cookies. $1.4 trillion is a little hard to get your arms around so I established a scale wherein each cookie equaled 10 billion dollars. I began doing this demonstration with Oreo cookies all over the country. For the Pentagon I needed a stack of 73 Oreos ($730 Billion--50% of the discretionary budget). In order to keep the stack from falling over I needed to drill a hole through the center of the Oreos, so that I could stick a rod up the middle of them. The demonstration showed that by shifting six Oreos off the pentagon stack and shifting 60 billion you could eliminate child starvation around the world, rebuild our schools in the U.S., cut our use of oil by 50% and do a bunch of other good stuff.

So I was intimate with Oreos and handled them more than most adults. And as I mentioned, I had purchased Oreos from all around the country. At one point I came to realize that I was probably the best and only national Oreo quality inspector that Nabisco (or whoever it is that is now making those things) had. I could detect miniscule differences from regional bakers -- mostly in terms of consistency of the white stuff in the middle -- and the precision with which the two halves were stuck together. Then there was also the manner in which the Oreos were handled -- another quality issue -- all of which had a major effect on whether the Oreos I was drilling staying intact or crumbled. I thought of getting in touch with the Oreo folks and offering my services but figured it was better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Eventually we produced an online animation of the demonstration. It went viral. Millions of people downloaded it. And 10% joined TrueMajority.

All was going swimmingly until I received my third communication from the Oreo legal department- - something to the effect of "Far be it from us to abridge your first amendment rights to free speech, but some of our shareholders believe that by using Oreos in your demonstration, it indicates that Oreo is in agreement with your particular political views to shift money from the Pentagon budget to social needs. Therefore, we must respectfully ask you to desist from using Oreo cookies in your animation."

Something didn't seem right. I mean, you see all these ads where one company is comparing their product to some other company's trademarked product and that doesn't seem to be a problem.

So I talked to a trademark lawyer who said that it's legal to use somebody else's brand in your communications only if no other brand will do to make the point you're trying to make. I wrote the Oreo folks a letter saying that we had researched all other chocolate sandwich cookies and that no other cookie maintained the same high quality standard of Oreos in terms of the consistency of the amount of white stuff in the middle and the parallel plane of the top and bottoms cookie, both of which have an impact on the overall height of the cookie sandwich and the existing stack. So surely they could understand that since in my demonstration each Oreo represented $10 Billion that a minuscule height variation would have disastrous effects on the point I was trying to make. I haven't heard from them since.

-- Ben Cohen

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