I don’t actually keep up with the Kardashians. If I ran into them in the street, I probably wouldn’t recognise them. I don’t listen to Kanye’s music, and I don’t watch reality TV. Annoyingly enough, they’re still ubiquitous in the popular zeitgeist. In other words, the twittersphere keeps trying to cram details of their life down my eyeballs despite my attempts at curation. If it isn’t the weird fight they had with Taylor Swift, it’s That Terribly Lolsy Pepsi Ad with Kylie… and now this. Recently, Kim Kardashian sparked social media rage by trademarking “Kimono” in the United States for her upcoming range of intimate wear. We’re not sure if she thought she could get away with no one noticing, or if she didn’t care, but to be honest, we’re just kinda disappointed. For someone with a deep understanding of how to monetise personal branding, surely this wasn’t a good step. It should have at least gone to a focus group. Or maybe an agency.
Naturally, the backlash picked up under #KimOhNo with accusations of cultural appropriation. After a week of intense backlash, Kim declared, hilariously, that her brands were built with “inclusivity and diversity” at their core and as such she would be now relaunching it under another name.
KimOhNo and Hashtag Outrage
It’s easy to see why Kim Kardashian and her lawyers originally thought she could get away with this. Her attempt to trademark the word isn’t the first time it’s been done by a non-Japanese person. A quick check of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Database indicates it’s been done over a hundred times (though not all the marks are live):
In Australia, there are 17 results, with the top one by Hasbro relating to toys:
If we were to check the WIPO database we’d probably be inundated with searches. The majority of these won’t be by Japanese people or Japanese companies. Under current intellectual property rules, it’s probably going to be difficult to block — though I’m not extremely familiar with US law, so don’t take my word for it. In any case, the most effective way to counter any trademark registration is to get a lawyer to register an objection. There’s a 30 day limit for American trademarks for relevant people to file an objection, and a possibility to request for an extension if you need it. The 30 day limit’s run out on some of these marks but not all of them, so if you’re a relevant party with some money to burn on a lawyer, I’d usually recommend filing an objection instead of getting angry online.
It’s easier to write a twitter objection or an angry letter though, and “KimOhNo” was a pretty cool hashtag. Even the Mayor of Kyoto got onto it:
Mayor of KYOTO (!!!) made an official request to Kim K to RECONSIDER and STOP what she’s doing. KYOTO! Once the capital of Japan, city of traditional kimono makers. GO KYOTO! pic.twitter.com/0Mhm7vMPk9
— inKIMONO (@inkimono1) June 28, 2019
As WIRED notes, cultural appropriation outrage has been a staple of Kardashian drama for a while:
In her world, nothing is happening, and nothing will. Kardashian cultural appropriation scandals have been a mainstream talking point since at least 2014, when Khloé wore a Native American headdress to a Coachella-themed birthday party. Kim in particular has made headlines for the following: wearing cornrows (and calling them “boxer braids”), darkening her skin tone in promotional shots, dressing up as Aaliyah for Halloween, wearing Fulani braids (and calling them “Bo Derek braids”), and then wearing Fulani braids again.
Each time, many people came forward to express outrage, many others were outraged that people were outraged, and some people thoughtfully explained the problem: That the Kardashians were congratulated for wearing styles that originated with people of color, often the same styles that people of color are discriminated against for wearing. Personally, I find a white woman dressing up as Aaliyah to be borderline here, but Kardashian’s apology for it was truly cringeworthy: “We don’t see color in my home.” Her apologies have always been minimal and unsatisfying. If she was going to learn, she wouldn’t be a “Bo Derek braid” recidivist. But, like every other influencer’s, her periods of cancellation are brief. Next week, people will be clamoring for more KKW Beauty products, if indeed they ever stopped.
You won’t see the twitter crowd going after the other companies that have been quietly sitting on their Kimono trademarks for a while either. KimK does have a huge platform though, which has no doubt amplified the outrage against her, but at the same time, the very size of her platform insulates her from consequences. If there was a global boycott against Hasbro tomorrow for trademarking “Kimono” for toys, you’d probably see Hasbro issue an apology within days, and perhaps even a retraction of the registration (though we won’t hold our breath). Kim though? She knows she can ride it out if she wanted to. Her family’s done it before. I’m honestly surprised that she caved.
She did cave, though
It’s been fun watching the KimOhNo outrage play out over twitter, but in the absence of a legal challenge, if Kim herself hadn’t decided to back down, there was probably nothing that could’ve been done. Copyright and trademark law is diffused over multiple jurisdictions and the special consciousness/protections that one jurisdiction might have over something (such as Australia’s Indigenous Art Code) don’t apply over others. Some forms of appropriation also seem to generate more outrage and sympathy than most. You’ll still see people wear feather headdresses/ornaments in their hair, use phrases like “spirit animal”, more.
Outrage cycles that gain as much notoriety as the KimOhNo movement — to the point of appearing on headlines — do help move the conversation. And in some cases, like Kim’s, they prompt a retraction and some soul-searching. Hopefully, future branding agencies will know better than to suggest brand names for their clients that appropriate cultural icons without meaningfully engaging with or giving back to the culture in question. In this day and age, brands usually can’t afford this kind of bad PR. People are slowly starting to think twice about wearing Indigenous costumes for fun, just as brands are being careful to be more conscious about what they use. Even the current conversation about brands profiting off Pride Month has been good to see. In 2019, the old adage about any attention being good attention is no longer true. Brands do need to be more respectful of the world they live in, or risk alienating whole swathes of their target audience. Existing rival brands to KimK’s intimates wear brand were trending on twitter as the outrage rolled into high gear, driving business to their sites.
Want to know more? Or are you a Kardashian, now looking to rebrand a certain inappropriately named intimates wear brand? Get in touch.