McQueen Family Crashes Ferrari’s Limited-Edition Car

Advertising Law

Ferrari tried to cash in on Steve McQueen’s fame and well-known love of cars by selling a limited-edition vehicle dubbed “The McQueen” without permission from his heirs, according to a new California state court complaint.

The highest-paid actor in the world in the mid-1970s, McQueen had a love of cars and racing that was well known. Ferrari launched a limited-edition collection for its 70th anniversary in 2017 with special versions of classic Ferrari models and named one after the actor to leverage his notoriety and passion for automobiles, according to the complaint filed by McQueen’s son.

“The McQueen” was marketed to its customers as an extremely limited-edition car, with a significant price increase over a standard Ferrari model. The company engaged in widespread advertising of “The McQueen” on social media, the Ferrari website and brochures, which incorporated a photograph of McQueen and a description of his ownership of a Ferrari.

“Ferrari’s marketing that displayed a photo of McQueen next to a Ferrari Luso created an unmistakable (but false) association and endorsement of the McQueen-branded Ferrari by the McQueen family,” the complaint alleged.

When contacted by the McQueen family about the car, Ferrari renamed the car in question “The Actor” but continued to reference McQueen on its website, “and there can be no reasonable question as to which ‘Actor’ Ferrari is linking to the car,” the plaintiff told the court.

“McQueen had a passion for speed and danger,” the complaint stated. “He was and remains known as an avid motorcycle and race car enthusiast. … As a result of McQueen’s link to and love of cars, McQueen cars and related collectibles carry a huge premium in today’s market. The ‘Steve McQueen effect’ drives the value of anything owned by the actor, especially cars, to several multiples its standard price. For example … a vintage Ferrari 275 GTB/4 once owned by Steve McQueen sold for over $10 million, despite similar Ferraris usually selling for approximately $3 million.”

For more than 30 years, since McQueen’s death in 1980, his family has “carefully and deliberately” limited the car- and motorcycle-themed projects featuring his image, the plaintiff said. Because consumers routinely pay a substantial premium for automobiles and motorcycles authenticated or approved by the McQueen family, Ferrari unlawfully benefited by trading upon McQueen’s goodwill and reputation to sell the car, the complaint alleged.

For the purported trademark infringement, false endorsement and misappropriation of the right of publicity, the lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against the use of McQueen’s name and likeness, as well as $1 million in compensatory damages, $2 million in statutory damages per registered trademark and punitive damages.

To read the complaint in McQueen v. Ferrari N.V., click here.

Why it matters: The complaint notes that McQueen’s son toured the Ferrari factory in 2011 with the company’s president and discussed the possibility of creating a special-edition vehicle with his father’s name, if the “family would maintain approval rights and involvement in the project.” The 2017 release of “The McQueen” therefore “shocked” the family, according to the lawsuit, because of its knowing infringement.



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