Waits Wails over Car Ad

Alt-rock icon says General Motors used sound-alike singer to pitch its Opel cars in Europe

By Josh Grossberg Sep 15, 2005 8:55 PMTags

Let's hope Tom Waits leaves the udder at home when he shows up in court.

Following through on a threat he made last spring, the alt-rock icon has gone and sued a German-based division of General Motors and its ad agency for allegedly swiping his trademark growl for a series of European car commercials.

The lawsuit, filed this week in Frankfurt, Germany, claims General Motors' Opel unit and the McCann Erickson agency produced and broadcast ads that used a "perfect impersonation" of Waits' distinctive. Waits claims that GM did the commercial only after he turned down several chances to pitch the vehicle.

"Commercials are an unnatural use of my work," Waits said in April. "It's like having a cow's udder sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating."

On Thursday, in a statement announcing the lawsuit, Waits waxed sardonic.

"Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad--ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car. I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor. Currently accepting in my absence is my German doppelganger. While the court can't make me active in radio, I am asking it to make me radioactive to advertisers."

By doppelganger, the 55-year-old Waits is referring to the sound-alike singer Opel and McCann hired to imitate him, according to court documents. The ads aired in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway last winter and in early spring of this year.

The suit seeks damages and any "ill-gotten gains," including profits that the carmaker and agency generated for violating the singer-actor's personality rights under German law.

Reps for General Motors Opel and McCann Erickson were not immediately available for comment. However, the manager of McCann in Frankfurt told the Associated Press that the agency altered the music in the ad campaign after hearing Waits' grievances in May. He also said the company had yet to see a copy of the complaint.

When the Grammy winner first raised a ruckus five months ago, Opel said the advertisement featured a composition called "Weigenlied" written in the 18th century by Johannes Brahms and adapted by a Frankfurt-based singer who offered a "rough voice interpretation." The company also maintained that the only American performer it sought to do the ads was Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.

Waits said he found out about the raspy-throated impostor from fans who wrote him about the resemblance wondering whether he participated in the ads.

This isn't the first time Waits' udder-like pain has resulted in legal action.

In 1992, he took Frito-Lay to court, accusing the potato chip purveyor of ripping off his voice for a Doritos ad, and was awarded $2.5 million. He also filed similar suits against Audi and Italian carmaker Lancia.

When he's not suing mad, Waits is lending a hand. Waits has joined the bill of the Sept. 20 Big Apple to the Big Easy benefit concert/pay-per-view special at New York's Radio City Music Hall that also includes Dave Matthews, Trey Anastasio, the John Mayer Trio, Joss Stone and the Meters and will raise money for hurricane relief.