Roger on the MTA


Steven Hedlund

Published on
July 6, 2008

A month-long squabble between Roger Berkowitz and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority continued as Independence Day neared when the president and CEO of Legal Sea Foods turned a cheeky ad campaign into a free speech crusade. Though Berkowitz may not be riding the T anytime soon, his Boston-based seafood restaurant chain is stirring up a lot of economical publicity at a time when consumers aren't dining out as frequently. It's a brilliant move.

It all began last May when Legal posted a viral ad on the trendy Web site YouTube featuring amorous oysters, trash-talking clams and a foul-mouthed lobster. During the spot, Berkowitz says, "At Legal Sea Foods, our goal is to bring you the freshest fish possible. Sometimes it can be a little too fresh."

The ad was too edgy for conventional media outlets. But Legal was hooked on the "fresh" theme. So, with the help of the DeVito/Verdi ad agency in New York, Legal toned down the ad campaign and re-launched it last December. The ads depict a fish with a message bubble containing a playful insult.

Apparently, Legal didn't tone down the ads enough. In early June, the MBTA pulled two Legal ads from its trolleys and buses it deemed disparaging--one said, "This conductor has a face like a halibut," and the other said, "Bite me." The Carmen's Union was also offended and called for a boycott of Legal restaurants.

Instead of backing down, Berkowitz offered a tongue-in-cheek apology: "We should have never, ever said, 'This conductor has a face like a halibut,' when the truth is, most conductors don't look anything at all like halibuts," he said in a radio spot. "Some look more like groupers or flounders. I've even seen a few who closely resemble catfish. And there's one conductor on the Green Line that looks remarkably like a hammerhead shark. So we feel very badly about this mischaracterization, and we won't let it happen again."

Next, Legal hired First Amendment icon Martin Garbus, who crafted a letter threatening legal action on the grounds that the MBTA violated commercial free speech rights by removing the ads. But instead of simply rerunning the ads, Legal placed a red "censored" banner over the ads--right in time for the July Fourth holiday. And media outlets from the Boston Globe to Fortune magazine are along for the ride.

Berkowitz may not be making any friends at the MBTA or Carmen's Union (though Legal did take out a full-page ad in the June 23 Globe offering trolley conductors a free fish entrée). But he's getting a laugh out of consumers, who will think of Legal next time they decide where to eat out. Sometimes, being fresh is exactly what it takes to vitalize a 60-year-old brand like Legal Sea Foods.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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