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Troubled toucans and the Maya – a modern saga

30 August 2011 One Comment

Recently we reported on the Maya of Belize’s struggle to preserve their supply of native rosewood against the demands of overseas conglomerates.

Now another Maya group is facing a battle against the corporate will of a large foreign company as they fight to protect their right to use a traditional image dear to the Maya for millennia – the iconic toucan.

In a sign-of-the-times story, the giant convenience food company, Kellogg’s of Battle Creek, Michigan, is demanding that  the non-profit Maya Archaeology Initiative (MAI)  cease and desist from using  a distinctive toucan logo the Maya organisation has designed.

Why? Kellogg’s is worried that consumers may confuse the Maya group’s toucan with “Toucan Sam”, the garish cartoon bird spruiking Kellogg’s Froot Loops breakfast cereal.

No kidding.

“We are concerned about both consumer confusion and a dilution of our strong equity in these marks. Kellogg is also concerned by the inclusion of the Mayan imagery in the mark, given that our character is frequently depicted in that setting,” wrote David Herdman, Kellogg corporate counsel, in a July 19 letter to the organization.

The MAI takes a very different view.

“This is a bit like the Washington Redskins  claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians,”, the Maya Archaeology Initiative’s president, Dr Francisco Estrada-Belli, commented this week.

The MAI, in a written response to the Kellogg’s complaint, pointed out that the MAI logo is a more realistic representation of the toucan with a completely different colour scheme.

“Toucan Sam”, on the other hand, is cartoon character with loud colours that represent the Froot Loops food colouring.

In addition to adorning cereal boxes, “Toucan Sam” is also featured on games and clothing, and Kellogg’s reportedly is concerned that the MAI will use a toucan image on clothing.

To further complicate matters, Kellogg’s is concerned that the toucan is depicted along with “Mayan (sic) imagery,” which the company sees as a problem, “given that our character is frequently depicted in that setting.”

MAI legal counsel Sara Mott countered that there are no authentic depictions of Maya culture the Toucan Sam adventure games; however, there are culturally insensitive portrayals that she feels are “sending racist messages to children.”

“Disturbingly, the villain in this Kellogg’s Adventure – and the only character of colour – is a ‘witch doctor’ who cackles malevolently when stealing from children,” she said.

“At best, this is culturally insensitive. I would characterise it as a demeaning caricature of an advanced and ancient civilisation,” she said.

Dr Estrada-Belli said, “We expect a brand that is so familiar to children to play a role in supporting cultural and racial understanding around the world, rather than undercutting it by promoting demeaning racial stereotypes.”

Kellogg’s vice president of global communications, Kris Charles, admitted that, “During our conversation MAI raised some points about the cultural sensitivity of one of our marketing executions that we hadn’t considered. As a company long committed to diversity and inclusion and responsible marketing, Kellogg takes this concern very seriously.”

Ms Charles said that the game in question had been taken off the Kellogg website, and that Kellogg would incorporate MAI feedback into further marketing efforts.

Does this mean the Maya get to use their toucan without being sued? We’ll see…

The Maya Archaeology Initiative is a non-profit organisation that promotes educational opportunities and training in Maya culture for young people. It is also active in rain forest conservation, Maya archaeological research and supports sustainable tourism and traditional arts and crafts production in Maya communities.

Kellogg manufactures its products in 18 countries and is marketed in over 180 countries around the world. In 2010 the company employed 30,600 people and generated revenue of Revenue US$ 12.397 billion.

According to the MAI, Kellogg’s has a history of unsuccessful challenges to others’ use of toucans, claiming to hold a trademark on all images of the Central American bird.

Here in Belize, where the distinctive gravelly cry of the toucan is a familiar sound, we’ll be watching this case very closely. We’d hate to think that someone would try to copyright that cheerful call, but you never know…


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  • Marc said:

    Thank you for an informative article, Chaa Creek. As we get closer to 2012 it’s important that people learn more about some of the issues facing today’s Maya, and this and the rosewood articles are real eye-openers. Please keep up the good work!

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