Teeth Whitening System Brings “Sue the World” Lawsuit Against Ad Agency, Competitor and Search Engines–Dazzlesmile v. Azoogle
By Eric Goldman
Dazzlesmile, LLC v. Epic Advertising, Inc., 2:09-cv-01043-PMW (D. Utah complaint filed Nov. 23, 2009)
Dazzlesmile sells a teeth whitening system. Presumably these systems generate fat profits, because Dazzlesmile has brought an expensive “sue-the-world” lawsuit against its ad agency, its competitor and the search engines.
The lawsuit against Azoogle/Epic is partially based on a miscalibrated cost-per-acquisition (CPA) deal. Azoogle sold Dazzlesmile on a CPA deal which pays Azoogle $43 for making a $4 sale with negative-option continuing revenue streams, i.e., the consumer has to cancel after the free trial period or he/she automatically gets shipped and charged for more whitening stuff. If the ongoing revenue stream is great enough, it can make sense to pay out big upfront commissions to get the sale. However, this payment structure creates lots of mischief possibilities.
In this case, Dazzlesmile alleges that its competitor engaged in “CPA fraud” by placing thousands of orders, coincidentally generating over $100k of commissions to Azoogle in one week. Dazzlesmile also complains that its products were being promoted by spam, fake blogs and other problematic ads in contravention to Azoogle’s promises. Finally, Dazzlesmile complains that a rogue affiliate packaged two different systems into the same ad, causing consumers to order both products and then renege when they realized Dazzlesmile’s terms.
The odd thing about this complaint is that Dazzlesmile tries to portray itself as the white-knight advertiser that wants to do right by consumers, while the evil Azoogle kept tempting Dazzlesmile to cut corners and take undeserved money from consumers. I understand the value of this positioning, but I find it a little hard to believe. You kind of know what to expect when you’re dealing with Azoogle, and I’d be surprised if Dazzlesmile is a fully innocent naïf.
Dazzlesmile also claims that its competitor slapped counterfeit “Dazzlesmile” labels on a different teeth whitening system. It further claims that Azoogle and the competitor conspired to use Dazzlesmile’s advertising copy in Azoogle’s network to direct teeth whitening customers to the competitor. It also claims these defendants used the Dazzlesmile trademark in a host of inappropriate ways, including in spam, as keyword ad triggers, in domain names, and in astroturfed content. Dazzlesmile claims it has received 10,000 misdirected customer support inquiries from duped customers.
Lawsuits Against the Search Engines
Dazzlesmile drags Google, Yahoo and Microsoft into the lawsuit for selling keyword advertisements despite Dazzlesmile’s cease & desist letter to stop doing so. Oddly, the complaint pleads the search engine’s liability as “vicarious liability,” which should be DOA. Vicarious trademark infringement requires an agency relationship between the search engines and the advertisers, which the complaint doesn’t (and can’t) plead. If it’s a non-IP form of vicarious liability, then it’s preempted by 47 USC 230. So I predict Dazzlesmile will have to amend its complaint against the search engines to allege some other legal theory, or the search engines will exit this particular matter quickly.
Interestingly, the complaint alleges ripoffs of both its copyrightable ad copy and its trade secret protectable marketing plans, but the complaint does not allege either copyright infringement or trade secret misappropriation.
Dazzlesmile’s complaint, if completely accurate, tells a story filled with legal wrongs, but I’m not sure I found it all that convincing. I will have to see the defendants’ responses before I can begin to form any conclusions about its overall merit.
It does point out one troublesome spot as a good practice pointer. I know a lot of advertisers think they prefer CPA pricing over CPC or CPM pricing because they are more clearly paying for results, but this case provides a good illustration that a miscalibrated CPA price is no better at reducing unwanted spending than a miscalibrated CPC or CPM. At minimum, I’m surprised that Dazzlesmile apparently didn’t include some provision in the CPA formula allowing it to avoid payment for chargebacks or immediately returned products. If you’re an advertiser doing CPA deals, make sure you have robust enough exclusions to the CPA obligations so that you are truly paying for bona fide results.
AdWords Lawsuit Roster
The updated roster of pending AdWords cases:
* Stratton Faxon v. Google (not initially a trademark case)
* Dazzlesmile v. Epic