Back in 1982, Sir John Hagarty spotted the slogan ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ which means ‘advancement through technology’ in an Audi factory, and used it as the basis of their marketing campaign in the UK. So the slogan has a history of identification with Audi for at least 25 years.
Like other British High School students with a TV at home and no aptitude for languages, the phrase was the only German sentence other than ‘Sieg Heil’ that I knew. Now, after a 7 year battle, Audi has managed to have this slogan recognized a trademark by the European Court of Justice. The slogan has been recognized a trademark for cars and car parts since 2001, but now has been widened to other classes including toys and clothing.
In a famous Only Fools and Horses episode, ‘Del Boy’ comforts a German girl about to give birth with the phrase and it appears in the lyrics of the U2 Zooropa song along with a number of other advertising slogans, and also in a song by Blur. It is used as a punchline in a joke in Guy Ritchie’s film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Do these references make the slogan public domain? Did Audi oppose the usage of their mark in polular culture?
The decision raises a number of issues. Firstly, the mark clearly lacks all distinctiveness in German, and though a successful advertising slogan, is it really an indication of origin, beyond implying that a car is German manufactured (implying, presumably, reliability by over-engineering)? If allowable for cars and car parts due to acquired distinctiveness through usage, why should the mark be allowable for other types of goods? Another issue is why should the ECJ deal with this? Presumably the correct forum is the Office of Harmonization?