August 11, 2022

Digital Domain: Our Geeks Are Better Than Your Geeks

ONE incompetent young salesman in a short-sleeved blue shirt. That’s about all Newegg, an online retailer, needed to create a hilarious parody commercial.

Best Buy, the consumer electronics giant, was not amused.

In the parody, the salesman knows nothing at all about the computers on display in his department. A customer’s voice asks, “What’s the difference between these two?” The salesman leans down to read the information cards for two laptops, straightens up and looks bewildered: “O.K. — I don’t really…” is all the guidance he can offer.

Then the scene changes to a shot of three laptops under spotlights on a stage. A voiceover says: “ — come for the expert reviews; buy for the excellent prices.” Newegg, of course, sells only online and offers those reviews in place of salespeople.

The commercial ends with the company’s pitch: “Take it from a geek.”

Last month, Best Buy’s lawyers sent a letter to Newegg, demanding that it stop showing that commercial and “any other advertising purporting to show Best Buy employees.”

Best Buy, whose own salespeople also wear blue shirts, complained that the employee in the commercial was “depicted as being slovenly and uninformed about computer products.” The letter also demanded that Newegg drop its “Geek On” marketing theme because, it said, the theme encroaches upon Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” trademark.

Newegg did not heed Best Buy’s demands. Instead, it placed Best Buy’s cease-and-desist letter on public display, on its Facebook fan page, and it continues to show the commercial on television.

Helpfully, it also supplied a YouTube link to the parody. By last week, the commercial had been viewed on YouTube more than 556,000 times.

Parodies that take aim at competitors are nothing new, and courts have upheld them as a legally protected form of free expression as long as there is no chance that viewers will fail to notice that they are indeed parodies and not mistake them for real commercials.

In this case, could viewers possibly think that the appallingly ignorant person in the blue shirt bore a striking similarity to the sales rep they recently encountered in a Best Buy store? Could they somehow think that Best Buy had sponsored the commercial?

Leslie J. Lott, a lawyer at Lott Fischer, in Coral Gables, Fla., and a former director of the International Trademark Association, said: “Best Buy is in a dilemma. If the awful customer service that is portrayed in the Newegg commercial is accurate, there’s no parody. So it would be in a good legal position but in a horrible position from a public relations perspective. If, on the other hand, Best Buy’s position is that their customer service is actually excellent, then that strengthens Newegg’s parody defense.”

A spokeswoman for Best Buy said in an e-mail that “when Newegg’s commercial presents a Blue Shirt in a disparaging way, it damages our goodwill.” So, Best Buy asserts, “Newegg’s commercial is not a parody” because it “ridicules.”

A short-sleeved blue shirt isn’t a registered Best Buy trademark. As for vexation over being the target of ridicule, that comes along with a parody, doesn’t it?

Newegg did back down a degree, however. Earlier this month it told Best Buy that it would add a disclaimer saying: “This advertisement photoplay is a work of fiction.” The disclaimer, shown only online, says the ad was “solely intended to parody and draw attention to any business establishments (but none in particular) that provide poor customer service.” As of last week, one could find two versions of the commercial on YouTube: one with the disclaimer and one without.

I asked Newegg why it did not assert its right to run a parody without a disclaimer. Bernard Luthi, Newegg’s vice president for marketing, Web management and customer service, said in an e-mail that the company did stand behind its parody and would continue to run the commercial because “we do not believe that we portrayed any specific competitor in an offensive way.”

Instead of deploying sales reps, Newegg offers customer ratings, using a five-“egg” scale instead of five stars, along with detailed descriptions of pros and cons. Often, these are written by technically sophisticated customers.

In one review, for example, an Asus laptop is praised for its “cool design” — and this was meant literally: “cpu averages 35 and gpu averages around 42 degrees Celsius with general use.”

In another review, a customer says of a $1,500 MSI laptop: “Pros: Seriously? Just read the specs on this beast.” The reviewer warned that the machine included bloatware, but that this was “nothing I couldn’t easily fix myself.”

But there are people, like my mother, who could not easily fix a bloatware problem. Newegg’s tagline — “Geek on. Everyone is passionate about something.” — does not describe her relationship to her computer.

And some shoppers don’t want to read and compare spec sheets. They are, in fact, very similar to the customer in the Newegg ad who asks for a simple comparison of two laptops on display. They may well be more comfortable shopping at a store like Best Buy.

Newegg proudly displays the exact number of product reviews that are available on its site — last week, the number was more than two million — but that is little help to the shopper who just wants a knowledgeable sales rep to say, “I suggest this one right here.”

The techie jargon that riddles customer reviews at the Newegg Web site seems a pretty ripe target. Perhaps Best Buy should unleash a team of mischievous advertising professionals on Newegg and let its humorless lawyers pursue some other project.

One satirical picture should be worth a thousands words of legalese.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail:

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