Playing with the big brands

It was quite a week for Justin Nurse. The 27-year-old “David” and his company, Laugh It Off, appeared in the Constitutional Court on Tuesday and faced “Goliath”—South African Breweries (SAB). The court has to decide whether Laugh It Off’s “Black Labour—White Guilt” T-shirts are an infringement of SAB’s Carling Black Label trademark or whether they are protected by freedom of expression.

A day later, Laugh It Off’s second annual on South African youth culture was launched in Johannesburg. The Mail & Guardian Online fired 10 questions at the tired T-shirt entrepreneur.

1. What do think about your day in the Constitutional Court?
Well, it was expensive to get to the Constitutional Court. My philosophy is that if you get the chance to go there, you should try. As a South African citizen, it is a privilege to exercise your constitutional right to freedom of speech in the highest court of the land.

And I was very impressed to see how the judges demonstrated their understanding of the issues. It was good to witness the intelligence with which they posed their questions.

2. What was different from the other times you went to court?
I think until now the case was framed mainly around the parameters of trademark law, and at the Constitutional Court, it was more a case of equally competing rights [the right to protection of intellectual property and the right to freedom of expression]. The discussion was more about how you balance these rights, and I think in that respect it was a lot more positive.

Will it result in victory?
Victory for us? I am not sure. I am not going to base my happiness around the outcome of the case. I am ecstatic with the way the case was debated, and our victory lies with the fact that people have talked about it in the streets. The fact that a subject like black labour and white guilt is discussed in the new South Africa is important, and this case allowed that to happen.

3. How will you face the consequences if the Constitutional Court decides to rule in favour of SAB?
We will jump off that bridge when we cross it. I think that for me ... the consequences are insignificant in comparison with the overall consequences for freedom of speech. I personally do not stand to lose that much; I am more concerned about comedians and artists and other forms of expression that want to use the tools of our culture for social comments. I think it will be a sad day for freedom of speech if we loose.

4. Are you still up and running after all these court cases?
The problem with this whole case is that the annual had to be printed twice. It contained some pictures that SAB found offensive, and the Cape High Court granted an interdict on the first print. Because of the reprint, both the calendar and the annual were not out on time, which led to financial loss. And we had to pay R30 000 to file an application for the Constitutional Court. All of this has brought us to the brink of financial ruin. 

5. After all the hassle, do you ever regret making the T-shirt?
No, I do not believe in regret. You make the best decision with the information that is available at the time. I am not sure if I would do it again. You think that it will cost you a bit financially but a consequence has also been that we became branded ourselves. We enjoyed certain anonymity and that has now gone out of the window. If I would have to do it again, that would be one of the things I would reconsider.

6. Where did Laugh It Off come from?
When we were studying at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, we used it as an expression of apathy. When asked if we would go to lectures we would say: “No, I will laugh it off.” Later, these words transformed into our call to arms, and now they actually stand for “Let us do something.”

And for anyone who sees himself as a victim of our humour, it is more a sentiment of advice.

How did it start?
Laugh It Off started with T-shirts like the “Black Labour—White Guilt” one. We sold them at the arts festival in Grahamstown in 1999. We got such a good response that we travelled from music festival to music festival and sold these T-shirts.

I majored in journalism and politics, and always had the ambition to get into the publishing business. So together with the T-shirts, we started to publish posterzines [a mixture between a poster and a magazine].

7. Is it more than a T-shirt printing company?
Yes, we are a clothing and media company. As a publisher, we want to create a stage for talented young writers who in general would stay unnoticed by other publishers. And we publish a calendar with pictures that conveys our ideas about society. At the same time, it serves as a chronicle.

8. What is the idea behind using brands?
We live in a consumer culture. Brands are the icons of that culture; they are the most recognisable part of our lexicon, so to use them as vehicles for communication and a medium for our messages is very effective.

Is the alteration of brands a form of communication or a statement on branding?
The statement on consumerism is firstly the alteration of the brand. The comment on branding is that the icon, which is created by advertisers and has a huge marketing spin behind it, can easily be altered to show sometimes a more valid message.

It is up to the viewer to convey the actual message of the alteration. The interpreter decides what the message is.

9. Was it your intention from the beginning to crack down on major brands?
Not necessarily to crack down on major brands. We want to use brands to expose a truth that lies beneath it, or that is connected with the message that the brand is trying to convey.

Take, for example, MTN ... they chose the slogan “Hello the future”, implying that the future is about cellphones. We conveyed this message to say that the future is about HIV/Aids. We copied the logo and instead of using the letters “MTN”, we used “HIV”.

Did you expect the big brands to be offended by what you do?
Yes, but we also knew that the current law needed to be challenged.

How should they have responded to the work you publish?
Laugh it off! Unless they can say, look, buddy, I can see what you are doing, but this affects us financially. They should take it as a compliment. Respond like First National Bank, which bought 500 of our T-shirts that said: “First National Bankie, how can weed help you?”

10. What is your success?
That depends how you define success. If you talk about financial success, I am flat broke and I have been working at this company for years. But our new annual features so many new authors that have never been published before.

Young people, from back-quarter towns like King William’s Town, who never get an opportunity to write for a newspaper or a magazine, are being published. The fact that their content is exposed is what I call success.

And our success has been testing the boundary between trademark law and freedom of speech.

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