And yet that is exactly the praise that Netflix’s lawyers received this week, from a variety of media outlets, for going about that most lawyerly of tasks: telling people they aren’t allowed to do a thing. In this case, the people were the Chicago residents Danny and Doug Marks, and the thing was operating a bar whose theme was Stranger Things, a hit Netflix show set in the 1980s.
Netflix was applauded because its legal team, or perhaps its marketing department, peppered its cease-and-desist letter with several knowing references to the program (“Look, I don’t want you to think I’m a total wastoid … ”) and—even more strangely for the form—what seemed like actual politeness. “You’re obviously creative types, so I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s important to us to have a say in how our fans encounter the worlds we build,” a Netflix senior counsel wrote. (The company did not respond to an interview request.)
This is where the emphasis on authenticity in corporate branding has led to in 2017: Even cease-and-desist letters, traditionally one of the sternest, most threatening forms of interpersonal communication, are being suffused with warmth and, as branding experts like to call it, “voice.” Brand-building can happen anywhere: “That's the way companies should be thinking about literally everything they do, and legal is no different than customer service,” says Kevin Lane Keller, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.
It has typically been the responses to cease-and-desist letters—not the letters themselves—that have inspired the most creativity, as when a Philadelphia-based chain recently got a letter about its “Chick Philly” sandwich from Chick-fil-A’s lawyers and responded by serving “Cease and Desist” sandwiches in wrappers with excerpts from the letter printed on them.
But brands other than Netflix have started scoring PR points for their lawyers’ thoughtful epistolary approaches. In 2012, Jack Daniel’s was praised (by The Atlantic, among others) for politely and non-threateningly asking a satirical novelist to change his book’s cover, which mimicked the label on the company’s whiskey. More recently, David McCraw, a lawyer at The New York Times who says his writing usually has “an audience of one,” received a digital standing ovation for a triumphant letter to Donald Trump’s lawyers last October, defending a story the paper ran about two women’s accounts of being groped by the then-candidate.
Besides being calibrated to spread widely on social media, the tone of Netflix’s letter likely served the company’s legal interests, according to Ira Nathenson, a professor at St. Thomas University’s School of Law, near Miami. He says that Netflix has “a whole bunch of applications pending for Stranger Things on the U.S. [Patent and Trademark Office] database,” and the company might have ambitions to sell or license merchandise related to the show. But trademark claims like these don’t always go as companies hope. “IP law, both copyright and trademark, is filled with examples of IP owners who made overreaching claims and got smacked down in court, sometimes having to pay their opponents’ attorneys’ fees,” Nathenson says. “You can’t really say whether the Netflix case is one of these cases, but perhaps that's one of the things Netflix was concerned about: ‘Let's be nice—let's try to get them to shut it down.’”
Ultimately, what made so many people latch onto Netflix’s request—aside from fans’ affection for a popular TV show—was the abysmally low expectations for cease-and-desist letters in the first place. “Where legal communication and social media intersects more frequently is on the other side—where the recipient (or target) of [the letter] would use social media to broadcast the message of trademark bullying,” Leah Chan Grinvald, a professor at Suffolk University’s Law School, in Boston, wrote to me in an email.
Grinvald sees larger problems with this default tone of bullying, problems she wrote about in a 2015 paper called “Policing the Cease-and-Desist Letter.” In that article, she noted that only a minuscule proportion of legal disagreements actually end up in court, and “most disputes”—especially ones involving intellectual property—“start and end with a cease-and-desist letter.” As these letters are unregulated and legally nonbinding, attorneys have little reason not to threaten their recipients; in turn, Grinvald writes in the paper, those recipients are often “small businesses and individuals [who] do not have the resources to bring the necessary lawsuits to invalidate such agreements, which create de facto enforced, coerced agreements.” In other words, Grinvald is arguing that the fundamental incentives of cease-and-desist letter-writing are skewed toward rudeness, which produces a situation in which recipients frequently surrender out of fear. And in that same situation, a friendly tone can stick out and potentially be extra persuasive.
Indeed, Grinvald pointed me to the fact that at the core of Netflix’s letter are some pushy phrasings. “They want a reply from the pop-up owners ‘as soon as possible’ (so therefore, almost no time to talk to a lawyer), which I cite as an [indication] of abusiveness,” she says. She then noted another example, regarding what Netflix is legally able to control: “Perhaps the name Stranger Things, if they are claiming trademark rights to the show name, or set designs, if they are claiming trade dress or perhaps copyright in them. But no entity or individual has the right to control the evocation of the ‘world’ that they create,” as the letter suggests. Maybe it wasn’t so cool after all.