Friday, May 04, 2001

Dueling slogans

It's David vs. Goliath of drains

        Competing for customers, two neighborhood plumbers are using similar slogans.

        “A flush beats a full house,” says Jolly Plumbing of Wilder, Ky.

        “Our royal flush beats your full house,” says Roto-Rooter, which calls itself “America's neighborhood plumber.”

        The case of the dueling slogans could — if lawyers get involved — turn into a high-stakes poker game pitting David against Goliath.

        For now, David looks to be holding the winning hand. Although neither company owns the copyright to its material, Jolly Plumbing used its slogan first.        

Pipe-wrench business

        Goliath — aka Roto-Rooter — may be a latecomer. But he has deep pockets.

        Cincinnati-based Roto-Rooter is an international outfit. The 66-year-old company's 3,000 employees unclog drains in 50 states and places like Japan, England and New Zealand. Business is good. Anticipated 2001 revenues: $300 million.

        “We hope to do $3 million this year,” said Barry Jolly, president and owner of Jolly Plumbing. His 22-year-old firm has 30 employees and 20 trucks.

        All of the company vehicles display the Jolly slogan.

        “It costs $1,000 to get that slogan plastered on the side of each truck,” Barry told me. “We've got it on everything, our stationery, our calling cards, even our watches and clocks.”

        Jolly Plumbing started using the slogan in 1980. Roto-Rooter began the periodic use of its “our royal flush beats your full house” campaign in 1987.

        “One of my original plumbers, Rick Hatfield, came in one day with the slogan,” said Barry Jolly. “I think he heard of someone using it out west.”

        That someone could be Dick Scott, a west-side plumber. He claims he brought the slogan to town in the '70s from “way out west.” He dropped it “when Jolly picked it up.”        

Slogan power

        I asked Barry Jolly what he gets out of a slogan whose history resembles the origins of an urban myth.

        “It shows we're not just working with our noses in the dirt,” he said. “It shows we have a sense of humor.”

        His customers get the joke. “Every week, we get checks made out — not to "Jolly Plumbing' — but to "A Flush Beats a Full House.'”

        Barry Jolly isn't laughing about a Roto-Rooter billboard he saw recently. The sign off Interstate 71 features the saying, “Our Royal Flush Beats Your Full House,” next to a drawing of playing cards fanned out to show a royal flush.

        “Not that I'm losing sleep over it,” he admitted. “But it does kind of bother me.”

        He worries that his customers might think Roto-Rooter bought Jolly Plumbing. Such a transaction has been proposed.

        “Roto-Rooter has been pursuing me for years,” he said. “They want to buy my business.”

        Goliath swears the slogan duel is not part of a plan to take over David.

        “It's nothing like that,” said Roto-Rooter marketing vice president Steve Pollyea. “We're just using a very clever slogan.”

        Barry Jolly doesn't know what to think. So he's keeping his options open.

        He's talking to attorneys. Thinking about copyrights. Wondering if Roto-Rooter wants to buy his slogan.

        No matter how this game of royal flushes and full houses ends up, bet on this:

        Whoever brokers this deal will wind up with the cleanest drains in town.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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