Whose Red Cross to Bear?

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 we expect.

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 organization.

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” brand products.

Johnson & 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 legal practice.

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 purposes.

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 Swiss flag.

The ARC argues that it began using the red cross as its emblem in 1881, five years before Johnson & Johnson was founded. According 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 that time.”

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 clear. 

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 marijuana.)

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.

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”