Air-freshener tree makers get sued too

Bizarre, Funny

The next time you peruse the array of scented accessories at the gas station counter, debating if you’d like your car to smell like vanilla, pine trees, or green apples, consider the vicious court battles that have transpired over the years in the realm of scented tree-shaped air fresheners.

The smell of money

New York’s Car-Freshner, the creators of Little Trees, the iconic pine-tree-shaped air fresheners that dangle from the rearview mirrors of taxis across the country, recently delivered a deathblow to its main rival, Exotica. A much smaller company based out of Ohio, Exotica makes a wide range of chemical air fresheners, but it is their line of palm-tree-shaped odor maskers that have long drawn the ire of their East Coast competitor.

With about 400 employees, Car-Freshner sells about 200 million Little Trees fresheners a year. They’ve been making tree-shaped fresheners since the 1950s, and their claim to the tree-shaped air freshening crown seems undeniable. But the company is fiercely protective of its brand. In 2013, they successfully sued the image licensing corporation Getty Images for $100,000 in damages for licensing photos that featured their tree-shaped air fresheners.

The battle with Exotica goes back to 1995, when Car-Freshner successful sued Exotica to change the names of the latter’s Royal Pine and Vanillorama fresheners, on the basis that Car-Freshner had trademarked those names. In 2011, Car-Freshener again successfully sued Exotica to change the name of their Icey Black line of air fresheners, on the grounds that it infringed upon the New York firm’s trademarked Black Ice product.

Another win for Little Trees

Fast forward to 2015, when Car-Freshener once more took Exotica to court. This time Car-Freshner sued on the basis that Exotica had incorporated the bright yellow label, the upward slanting text, and a tree logo onto their merchandise—design elements that Car-Freshener had featured on its packaging since the 1970s.

Even with a history of legal successes behind them, few thought that Car-Freshener would win this case. David Antonucci, an attorney representing Exotica, was quoted in the New York Times, commenting on how difficult it would be to justify a trademark on all trees. “Maybe maple versus oak, since I’m not a horticulturalist, that I could understand,” he said. “Pine versus palm? Please. The Pepsi swoosh versus the Coke swoosh? I think we can see the difference.”

The jury, however, thought differently, and on November 19, 2015, ruled in favor of Car-Freshner. Tucked into Exotica’s defense was a glaring inconsistency: The packaging for Exotica’s tree-shaped air fresheners, while looking strikingly similar to Car-Freshener’s, did not resemble that of Exotica’s own line of canned air fresheners. The branding, coloring, and style were different, suggesting that the similarity of Exotica’s air freshener packaging to Car-Freshner’s was no mere coincidence.

The damages owed to Car-Freshener were judged to be $55,000—a rather stiff penalty considering that Exotica’s annual sales of tree-shaped air fresheners in the United States are a mere $110,000. That’s an order of magnitude less than Car-Freshener’s.

Car-Freshener considers its Little Trees a pop icon in America’s automotive history, as the brand appears in countless films and videos. So if you try to sell your own artificially scented cardboard trees in America, it seems, Car-Freshner will chop you down.

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