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In early August, the medical supplies and drug firm Johnson
& Johnson sued the American Red Cross over the right to use the
red-cross emblem. Most of us had assumed that the red cross, seen
on ambulances and first-aid kits, was a universal symbol of succor
to the suffering. But like any graphic symbol, the red cross turns
out to have more meanings and more history than would at first
appear. And the rights to use this symbol are equally complicated—a
reminder that many graphic symbols have more complex stories than
American Red Cross licensed products.
The controversy arises from products bearing the familiar red
mark being sold on shelves once claimed by Johnson & Johnson.
Those products are made by for-profit companies—such as Learning
Curve International, Water-Jel and First Aid Onlyunder license
from the American Red Cross, which receives income for the rights
to the use of the emblem.
The American Red Cross reacted stridently to the suit. ARC
president Mark W. Everson released a statement calling it “obscene”
and urging the judges not to let J&J “bully” his
At first blush, who wouldn't agree? Isn't the red cross as
common a symbol as the ubiquitous blue wheelchair, the slashed-out
cigarette or even the plus-sign it resembles?
Jonathan Paisner, brand experience director at CoreBrand,
challenged that perception in a blog entry and in an interview.
It took courage for J&J to stand up to a popular cause like the
Red Cross, he argues, and brand managers need to do such things
every so often.
Two Johnson & Johnson brand products (top) and two “house”
& Johnson's suit is a vital act of brand management, he
asserts. For J&J's lawyers to act, knowing the bad publicity
the company would take on, Paisner says, “They must have pretty
good legal basis.”
The immediate public reaction was to side with a benevolent,
nonprofit organization against a for-profit corporate giant.
Paisner says, “We think we know about this symbol. We've all seen
it on M*A*S*H.” But getting bombardiers to avoid hitting a
train of wounded by painting the cross on top is different than
printing a cross on a box of gauze. At my local drugstore, the
J&J boxes wear the cross on the light blue box; the house brand
in boxes of the same blue beside them do not. The Johnson &
Johnson products with the red cross always pair it with the “First
Aid” sub-brand; a small notice on the side of the package specifies
that the product has no connection with the American Red Cross.
In response to J&J's demand that all questionable products
be destroyed and proceeds be relinquished, American Red Cross
publicists and lawyers verbally drew images of bandages going to
waste while people bleed to death in the streets. But of course
asking for the destruction of the offending products is standard
The ARC's reaction recalled the exaggerated theatrics of an
athlete trying to draw a foul call from the referee.
A quick reading of the history of the dispute reveals more than
a century of uneasy coexistence. If anyone fired the first shot in
the current trademark flare-up, it was the ARC, with its decision
to license the symbol to companies operating in a market where
J&J was dominant.
The explanation is that, like many nonprofits, from art museums
to public broadcasting, the Red Cross is looking for new sources of
income and marketing/advertising types are coming up with new
ideas. The notion of licensing the red-cross symbol probably seemed
a good business idea.
In a sense, the two parties are arguing at, well, cross
USDA Forest Service's Woodsy Owl mascot.
J&J's rights to the red cross derive from a trademark
listing. Those of the ARC come from Congressional statute, granting
the red cross the same status enjoyed by Smokey the Bear, Woodsy
Owl, the Olympic rings or the presidential seal.
But where did it begin? The International Committee of the Red
Cross was established in 1863 in Switzerland. The following year it
adopted the red cross as its symbol by reversing the colors of the
The ARC argues that it began using the red cross as its emblem
in 1881, five years before Johnson & Johnson was founded.
to an ARC statement, “J&J obtained a trademark registration
in 1887, but did not object to the Red Cross use of the emblem at
But the American Red Cross was not officially chartered by
Congress until 1900, and only after an amendment in 1905 was its
right to the emblem declared. Lobbyists for J&J fought and
failed to make their own specific rights to the cross
After the Johnstown flood in 1889, when the ARC was active in
helping survivors, some companies attempted to cash in on the
red-cross symbol. During World War II, the ARC also charged
companies with infringement. The ARC has recently sent stern
warnings to walk-in clinics and other organizations that use the
red cross. But it's nearly impossible to stop them all. The other
day I passed a sign bearing the legend “First Care” accompanied by
the numeral one nestling against a red cross to form a sort of
logo. It turned out to be simply a doctor's office, the kind of use
that's likely to remain beyond control.
Flag of the Red Cross.
The red cross with equilateral arms is very old indeed. The
symbol, called the Greek cross, precedes Christianity by about
1,500 years. The use of the Greek cross by crusaders led to its
adoption on flags. (As the cross of St. George, an expanded Greek
cross ended up on the English flag.) It mutated into the Maltese
cross, associated with the Knights of Malta and later with the
German empire. (This cross, on Luftwaffe aircraft, was simplified
back into a Greek style cross.) It also provided one line of
evolution to the swastika, in German known as the
hakenkreuz or “hooked cross.”
The modern red cross is echoed in the blue cross of the health
insurance company that bears its name, and in the green cross, now
recommended by the International Standards Organization as an
international medical symbol. (The green cross is used by several
organizations, among them a group supporting medical
If the story of the controversy over the red cross suggests any
wider trend or pattern, it may be the continued blurring of the
role defined for corporate sponsors in the nonprofit world. This
pattern is not just visible in the battle over the cross but in
other precedents, too. For instance, public-broadcasting sponsors
were once recognized by simple on-air mentions; now they are given
extended quasi advertisements. Sponsors of museum shows were listed
on the gallery wall; now they get banners and billboards.
One lesson is clear: symbols still vary in meanings depending on
context, even in this globalized culture. And the rights to use
symbols vary as well, according to context and purpose.
Today, in the international realm, the red-cross symbol is
regulated formally by the various international agreements known as
the Geneva Conventions. But, as with other aspects of those
agreements, assuring compliance by the U.S. and other countries
isn't always easy. Just ask the people in cells at Gitmo.
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