Oh Henry! and the Copy-Cat Candy Bars
Oh Henry! is not the most popular candy bar in America today, but it’s been around a while. It’s one of three major contemporary candy bars that you could have bought in the 1920s. Milky Way and Hershey bar (plain or with almonds) would be the other two. But there were others, hundreds nay thousands of others, now gone and forgotten. Why did Oh Henry! survive?
The candy bar market in the 1920s was a bit like the wild west, fast and lawless, any buckeroo with a candy kettle and a wrapping machine out to make a buck. Oh Henry! soared above the competition because George Williamson knew a few things about marketing. He bought billboards, magazine ads, newspaper spots to promote his bar. He focused on the one product. And he had some pretty innovative ideas about how to expand the market for candy bars, like a booklet of 60 recipes for cooking with Oh Henry! (see my post on Oh Henry! stuffed tomatoes here). Not surprising, there were some who figured on riding the Oh Henry! coattails to grab a little piece of the candy action for themselves.
Copying was a huge problem in the candy business. The yummiest combinations were pretty well established. And if there was already a good version of, say, peanut marshmallow chocolate bar, you could understand the temptation to just try to sell your own as “almost” that other one. Candy innovation could only take you so far. Names, colors, and packaging–the stuff of trade mark and trade dress– were increasingly important, maybe even more important than the candy itself.
The success of Oh Henry! could be measured in the proliferation of copy cats. The worst offender was “Oh Johnnie,” sold by the Uncanco Candy Company of Delaware. “Oh Johnnie” looked like “Oh Henry!” and tasted (sort of ) like “Oh Henry!”, and you had to admit that there was something familiar about the name “Oh Johnnie.” But Oh Henry cost 10 cents. Oh Johnnie, on the other hand, was half the price.
George Williamson was not happy. Lawyers got involved. Williamson sued for trademark infringement, claiming Uncanco was deliberately attempting to fool people into thinking their bar had something to do with the more successful Oh Henry! The judge agreed:
Thus far the ‘Oh Johnnie’ bar had the appearance of being the same as the ‘Oh Henry!’ bar save in size, price and possible quality. They were alike as two brothers of different years. … It would be strain upon human credulity to believe that such and so many points of similarity as here found, could innocently exist. … The only plausible purpose for the similarity was to enable the smaller bar to be passed off as the product of the plaintiff.
Williamson won, and Ucanco was found guilty of trademark infringement. The lawsuit stopped Oh Johnnie. But lawsuits were an expensive, time consuming, and clumsy way to swat at the flies of candy competition in the roaring ’20s. Here comes Oh! Jiggs. And watch out, over there is Hey Eddie! Williamson didn’t give up fighting off the copy cats, but he did change tactics.
Next post: if the law fails, bludgeon them with sarcasm.