Fast food companies still in Russia, ban on juuls, and OSU patents "the." : The Indicator from Planet Money This Friday, we're looking at fast-food companies who are still hanging on in Russia. Juul getting banned. And as a cherry on top, THE Ohio State University deciding to patent you guessed it, "the."

Burgers in Russia, Juul vaporized, THE trademarked

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1107577923/1107598180" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong here with Adrian Ma and Darian Woods.

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

What's up?

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Hey, hey.

WONG: And we're all here for indicators of the week.

WOODS: Today we have burgers in Russia. There's vaping in the U.S.

MA: Plus a newly trademarked word that we've already used several times in this intro.

WOODS: I've got the lawyers on the line.

WONG: We'll see if they can help us out of this pickle, after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: My indicator of the week starts with American hamburgers in Russia.

WONG: McDonald's hamburgers or no - since they've pulled out?

WOODS: Yeah. So McDonald's, the company, has pulled out of Russia after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But I learned this week that if you are in Russia, you can still get American hamburgers without a problem.

MA: A hamburger loophole.

WOODS: This is a bunch of American restaurants that just never left. So Carl's Jr., the Hard Rock Cafe and TGI Fridays all have bars or restaurants operating in Russia right now with their brand on it.

MA: Wow.

WONG: I didn't even know TGI Friday's expanded outside of the U.S. It feels very American.

WOODS: Yeah. They're part of 247 multinational corporations that are just running as normal in Russia, you know, as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had never happened. And this is according to a tracker run at Yale University. So those companies aren't just bars and restaurants. They're also tech companies and clothing companies and so on. And the 247 are defined by Yale as digging in, as in they're defying demands from the public for exiting or reducing their activities in Russia. And there's been a lot of sanctions, and maybe some back-end financial arrangements had to be tweaked. But a company like Carl's Jr. or TGI Fridays can still legally operate in Russia.

WONG: So are these companies talking about why they're staying in Russia?

WOODS: So for Carl's Jr. and TGI Fridays, they've said that their franchisees are independently owned and operated in Russia. Carl's Jr. told me they no longer support their Russian franchisees. And TGI Fridays and Hard Rock Cafe are donating money from their Russian franchises to Ukrainian humanitarian causes.

MA: So these companies are - what? - like, just trying to keep a low profile and hope that no one notices?

WOODS: I mean, who knows? I was just looking at Google Trends for how often Americans were Googling Ukraine or Russia, and both search words are back down to levels below even before the invasion happened.

MA: OK. That is our first indicator - 247 companies digging in in Russia. Now we got Wailin Wong. What is your indicator of the week?

WONG: My indicator is $1.6 billion. That is the estimated value of tobacco company Altria's stake in Juul Labs, the e-cigarette company. And $1.6 billion might sound like a lot until you consider that Altria paid $12.8 billion for the stake back in 2018.

WOODS: That is not a very good return on investment, I must say.

MA: Let me get out my calculator. That is less.

WONG: Yeah. So at the time, Altria was banking on a future where adult smokers would switch from traditional cigarettes to the kind of smoke-free e-cigarettes that Juul makes. But this week, the FDA said Juul has to stop selling and distributing all of its products in the U.S. So that includes both the company's vaping cartridges and its pods.

MA: Well, vaping has actually been under scrutiny for a lot of years now, right?

WONG: Yeah. This has been going on for many years now. And, you know, unlike some other countries, like in the U.K., American public health officials have not been convinced that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking or that vaping is safer than conventional cigarettes. The FDA and lawmakers are concerned that instead of getting adult smokers to switch, companies like Juul were actually just getting a whole new generation of young people hooked on nicotine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I used products that were primarily the fruity flavors of Juul.

WONG: And here's part of a video that was played during a House subcommittee hearing last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And unfortunately, they were very, very successful in getting a lot of my friends and myself addicted to their products.

WONG: Juul hasn't sold its sweet and fruity flavors like creme brulee or mango since 2019. That left it with just its tobacco- and menthol-flavored pods, which it was allowed to keep selling while the FDA conducted a review. This week's order was the results of that review, and now even those tobacco pods are getting pulled. This is a really big blow for Juul, which makes almost all of its revenues in the U.S.

MA: A big blow for Juul in a cloud of mentholated vapor.

WONG: You know, Juul said it will fight the decision, but the general climate for tobacco companies is looking pretty unfriendly in the U.S. right now. Just this week, the Biden administration said it wants to eliminate almost all nicotine from cigarettes sold in the U.S.

WOODS: OK. Well, good luck for that. I'll believe it when I see it. Adrian Ma - third indicator of the week. Hit us.

MA: My indicator is three, as in a three-letter word.

WOODS: A three-letter word - OK, stretching the rules of what an indicator can be.

MA: But - OK, but stay with me. My three-letter word is the. And that is because this week, the is a newly registered trademark of the Ohio State University.

WOODS: Sorry. OK. So T-H-E is trademarked.

WONG: By one school in Ohio.

MA: Yes.

WONG: So just to be clear, you're not talking about the Ohio State as a trademark, but just the word the...

MA: Yeah.

WONG: ...Or the.

MA: I mean...

WONG: Oh, my gosh.

MA: What that basically means is that Ohio State has exclusive rights to put T-H-E on, like, branded T-shirts and caps. And if somebody wants to do that also, they would have to go through OSU or probably pay them for it.

WOODS: I'm going to have to look through those trademark filings - see what happened here.

MA: So, I mean, it's kind of amusing. Like, I looked up their application in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And basically, what Ohio State was arguing is that the the in the Ohio State is part of their brand, right?

WOODS: OK, makes sense.

MA: It's been their official name...

WOODS: Sure.

MA: ...Since the school changed their name over a hundred years ago. And they also sell a lot of merchandise already with the word the in big letters, you know, being the only thing on it.

WONG: Really?

MA: Yeah.

WOODS: All right. So it sounded like they - you know, they had a tradition, and they wanted to make it official.

MA: Yeah, that was part of it. And another part of it seems to be a sort of legal maneuver because it turns out another brand just a few months before also filed an application to trademark the.

WONG: It's like 2022, and then there's, like, multiple companies wanting to trademark the after, like, how many years of this word, like, being in the English language (laughter).

MA: So the other entity vying for legal control over the was Marc Jacobs - you know, the high-end fashion maker. The dispute got to the point where it almost went to a trial. And then eventually, they turned around and said, like - you know what? - let's just settle this. We do sorts of different things. You make sports-related merchandise, and the other one makes high-end merchandise. So they said, let's just share the word the. But that was not the end of the matter because OSU's trademark was denied twice before it went through. They had to convince the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the was legally distinctive - you know, that is, it clearly identifies the OSU brand. But after some back and forth, they eventually got it. And at least when it comes to the sort of college sports and apparel context, OSU can now say they own the.

WOODS: All right. So we're never going to shorten THE INDICATOR to just the.

MA: I mean, you might not want to do that without consulting the legal department first. But I mean, in all seriousness, I think it's fair to say this story feels a bit frivolous, but trademarks do have a serious purpose, right? Like, when you buy a product with Coke or Crocs on the label, you know you're going to get Coke or Crocs and not some knockoff. And that is a similar reason why we also have a trademark. THE INDICATOR, as of November 26, 2019, is trademark Number 5922928.

WOODS: You just had that memorized.

MA: Oh, yeah, I read it every night. THE INDICATOR is trademarked for, quote, "downloadable audio podcasts in the field of business, financial and economic news and analysis of the global economy."

WOODS: Except no substitutes.

MA: Unless you're going to pay us.

WONG: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jess Kung and Jamila Huxtable and engineered by Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Catherine Yang (ph). Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.