Have you ever wondered why some TV shows go to great lengths to obscure logos on laptops and other well-known products? The reasons are seemingly simple, but not necessarily clear cut.

You’ve likely seen this many times on TV: a character is using a laptop, or a group of pundits are sitting around a table with their tablets discussing the latest issues. But instead of a well-known logo on the device, there’s a generic sticker placed over it. More often than not, it’s an Apple laptop, but you’ll also see it happening with Dells and other manufacturers as well.

It doesn’t end there. It happens with other products, too. Whether it’s clothing brands or soft drinks, television and movie producers cover up product logos or (as is often the case in reality television) blur logos out. The practice, where a simple piece of tape is used to obscure a logo, is commonly called “greeking”, and is considerably less expensive than using a computer to pixelate a logo.

In other cases, TV shows and movies will create an imaginary brand, something which is very close to the brand it is mimicking, but just different enough that it’s impossible to sue. It’s not hard to see what the imaginary brand is mocking, and it also allows the audience to draw the obvious comparison in a more meaningful way than simply showing the original product.

But why would someone do this? Is it illegal to show logos on TV without permission of the trademark owner?

Why Do They Do This?

This practice is broadly known as product displacement. You’ve likely heard of product placement, where brands will pay money to a television show to use their products on camera. Product displacement is the opposite of that, where a show will remove a trademarked product. There are a few reasons this can happen.

First of all, a trademark owner may demand a licensing fee to display their logo, particularly if someone has created their own product and slapped a trademarked brand’s logo on it. One can’t simply use an existing brand’s logo without first obtaining a license to do so. There’s a lot a company has to go through before they can display a brand logo on their own product. Why would the show want to pay money when they could just as easily cover it up?

Similarly, there’s also the issue of free advertising. If you could get a brand to pay to show their logo on your show, why show it for free? If a broadcaster doesn’t want to simply give away airtime to the likes of Apple or Nike, they’ll cover up the logo to prevent that. There might also be a conflict of interest, which is to say, a network might have several advertisers all whom pay good money for ad spots. The last thing a network wants happening is to project the impression that they are giving preferential treatment to or specifically endorsing one particular company.

Lastly, there are cases in which a trademark owner may object to its logo being displayed, particularly when a product is portrayed in a negative light. For example, NBC was recently sued over an episode of Heroes, wherein one of the characters stuck her hand in a garbage disposal. During the scene, the disposal’s InSinkErator logo can be clearly seen. InSinkErator’s parent company, Emerson Electronics, strongly objected to this and promptly took legal action.

It may seem like an overblown reaction, but many companies don’t want their products portrayed unflatteringly. That’s why you often see man-on-the-street reports where interviewees are wearing clothing with the logos pixelated. Should one of those people say or do something potentially embarrassing, the media outlet could face backlash from the trademark owner of that clothing logo.

Legal or Illegal?

With that in mind, let’s look back at our original question: is it illegal to display logos on clothing, food, computers, and so on? The simple answer is no, it’s not illegal at all. In fact, it’s all covered under fair use. Just as you or anyone has the right to call the NFL championship game “The Super Bowl” and record it and talk about it with other people, despite what the NFL would have you believe.

The same goes for anything else, whether it’s a can of Coca Cola, or jacket made by Adidas, or a laptop manufactured by Apple. More often than not, television and movie producers err on the side of caution. Nobody wants to pay up for some unfortunate oversight such as the InSinkErator/NBC debacle. What NBC did wasn’t technically illegal, but Emerson felt it portrayed “the disposer in an unsavory light, irreparably tarnishing the product.” The same goes for licensing fees: they’ll cover up a logo just to make sure they aren’t seen as profiting off another company’s trademark.

But at the end of the day, it also means nobody’s getting free advertising–and companies are still incentivized to pay for product placement.

So, the next time you’re watching a movie or television and you see an Apple computer with the logo covered up, or a fictitious Coca Cola knockoff, you’ll have a better understanding as to why.

Images from How I Met Your Mother and Married at First Sight.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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