NEW YORK – Two artists stirred up some anger with McDonald's (MCD) last week after marketing a golden replica of a Mickey D's coffee stirrer once popular among drug users.
McDonald's recently learned of the piece, titled "Cokespoon No. 2," and demanded that the company that distributes the work cease all production of the $295 collectable, available online and at prestigious shows such as Art Basel Miami.
Artists Ken Courtney and Tobias Wong cast the 2005 work from a discontinued version of drink stick. It's an exact replica, down to the Golden Arches logo, in gold-plated bronze.
On Feb. 12, a lawyer for the fast-food chain sent distributor CITIZEN:Citizen of San Francisco a letter demanding the immediate halt of the "sale of its gold-plated beverage stirs and any other items bearing McDonald's marks."
It's a case of the fast-food chain upholding the integrity of its trademark, said Bill Whitman, a spokesman for McDonald's.
"There is an element of trust between McDonald's and our customers in what those trademarks and other representations of the brand mean," he said. "Any dilution of that, or any association without McDonald's approval to third parties, entities or objects, is an erosion of that trust that we have with our customers."
The artists concede they were walking a fine line with the work, but they're a little surprised it took two years to come to the corporation's attention. "Cokespoon No. 2" was featured in a February issue of Paper magazine as well as on Gawker.com's 2006 holiday gift list.
"I think we were playing with fire to start with," said Wong, who won the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2006 Modernism Young Designer Award. "It wasn't something we weren't expecting. We were definitely challenging the limits and how far we can push it."
The piece was part of the pair's 2005 "Indulgences" collection, inspired by the luxury goods market and designed to be the ultimate gift for the wealthy bachelor who had it all, said Courtney of Ju$t Another Rich Kid. "Indulgences" featured gold-plated Playboy swizzle sticks, 24-karat gold pills meant to be swallowed, golden dumbbells and another golden coke spoon cast from the cap of a BIC pen.
"It's kind of the pop culture of today with a bling twist," Wong said.
The collection garnered the interest of Philip Wood, the creative director of CITIZEN:Citizen, because it toyed with consumer society.
"Designers and manufacturers have a very specific and clear idea of the function of the objects that they make," Wood said. "And yet, when it arrives into society and culture, you really have very little idea control over what it's then used for or even how it's valued as well."
Courtney said they chose to include a cast of the McDonald's stirrer, which they bought off of eBay, in part because of its known popular use in drug circles for cocaine consumption.
McDonald's, according to its letter to CITIZEN:Citizen posted on the distributor's Web site, cited the artwork's title and the "association of [its trade]marks with illicit drug activity" as one reason for the cease and desist.
But it wasn't the first time that the stirrer's past had come to light. McDonald's redesigned the stirrer several decades ago after requests from law enforcement officials.
"We were contacted by law enforcement and the request was made to discontinue using that design because there were reports of illegal or illicit use of the coffee stirrer," Whitman said. "McDonald's immediately complied with the request to discontinue using that design."
Wood, whose shop is small, sent a letter of apology to the fast-food chain on Feb. 14 along with assurances that "Cokespoon No. 2" would be pulled from the shelf.
"I think it's a shame because I don't think there's any intent in damning anybody's reputation," Wood said. "It really is a comment on how these objects change shape when they get into culture."
The artists, who did not receive letters from McDonald's legal counsel, notified their other retailers to pull the piece too.
"We've pulled our stock out, and we've notified retailers that they can no longer sell them," Wong said. "We're doing our part. We don't want them in trouble either."
That seems to be enough for McDonald's. Whitman said the compliance with the cease-and-desist letter puts the issue to rest. And it leaves scores of golden spoons in private collections, where their value, one guesses, will only grow.