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Meet the Chilean beer getting its moment in the limelight over 20 years after losing a legal battle with LucasFilm—‘It’s creative, but it’s somebody else’s creativity’

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In this galaxy—and only about 20 years ago—the marketing team behind Chilean beer Cerveza Cristal had a clever and bizarre idea. The brand edited advertisements for the beer directly into television broadcasts of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Instead of watching an ad break, viewers could watch A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back uninterrupted on free-to-air Channel 13, but there was a catch. One moment, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi tells a young Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroics and prepares to gift the young boy with his father’s lightsaber. In the next, he opens an old chest to reveal not a weapon of a seasoned warrior, but a cooler of ice-cold beer. There’s a disturbance in the Force, and the film: The Cerveza Cristal logo appears in the center of the screen, its catchy jingle ringing in the background.

At the time, the idea was hailed as “genius” by the judges for the Cannes International Advertising Festival, who awarded OMD Santiago, Cristal Beer’s ad agency at the time, the Grand Prix. But despite the acclaim, the clips, originally from 2003, faded into obscurity—until this week when they resurfaced on X:

The site erupted with memes. Photoshops of Cerveza Cristal into famous movie franchises like Dune and Lord of the Rings proliferated across the site.

The free advertising for Cerveza Cristal via social media comes at a crucial time for Compañía de las Cervecerías Unidas, Cerveza Cristal’s parent company, which had a poor year, according to its fourth-quarter earnings report last month. Net income fell over 10% compared to 2022, and sales plummeted over 25% from 2022’s year’s fourth quarter. The company was in part hurt by a strong Chilean peso, which meant CCU could not maximize revenue for exports, including to the U.S. Over the past five years, the company’s market capitalization plummeted from $5.27 billion to $2.17 billion.

But beer brands across the board are suffering, largely due to inflation-induced price hikes turning off customers. Beer prices rose almost 6% from April 2022 to 2023, and over 70% since 2000.

CCU’s troubles have been compounded by the foes it’s made in the industry. In December, Chilean craft brewers joined the association of independent brewers in bringing an antitrust case against CCU, arguing the Chilean beer giant made arrangements with bars and restaurants to limit the access of competing brands. Anheuser-Busch InBev is suing CCU in a similar case, Bloomberg reported.

And these aren’t even the first legal troubles the makers of Cerveza Cristal have faced. Twenty years ago, the beer brand was in legal hot water for the very gimmicks that earned it so much attention this week.

It’s a (legal) trap

Cerveza Cristal’s stunt may have impressed advertising experts, but it did not impress LucasFilm, which filed a complaint against the company for violating the Chilean Code of Ethics Advertising.

The complaint, obtained by Fortune through Conar, or Chile’s Council for Self-Regulation and Advertising Ethics, argued that the advertisements gave the false impression to the audience, composed of a significant number of minors, that the product advertised was associated with the films. The films that Channel 13 broadcasts were protected under Chile’s copyright and intellectual property laws.

“Viewers are wrongly led to think that the film includes a reference to the product (Cerveza Cristal), causing an unquestionable surprise to the viewer and at the same time, denying them the possibility of changing the channel during the advertising space,” the complaint said.

LucasFilm won the case. Dan Croxall, a craft beer law expert and professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, told Fortune that, in intellectual property cases similar to this, a clever gag or added layer of brand recognition just isn’t worth the risk.

“It brings up chuckle—instead of a lightsaber, it’s a bottle of beer or whatever—and it’s creative, but it’s somebody else’s creativity,” he said.

LucasFilm and CCU did not respond to Fortune’s requests for comment.

Croxall said that despite the legal snafu, CCU’s attempt would be a pretty good marketing strategy—if done within legal parameters.

The beer market, particularly for craft beer, is overcrowded with almost 10,000 craft breweries in the U.S. as of 2022, according to the Brewers Association. Between a packed industry and big beer companies controlling over 65% of the market, it’s increasingly difficult to set one’s brand apart from others. In the past, microbreweries and craft beer companies have used the likeness of ’90s hip-hop icons and sports teams to brand their products, sometimes without licensing, Croxall said. The illegal use of intellectual property, as illustrated with the LucasFilm lawsuit, is ill-advised, but trying to associate a recognizable name or brand with one’s own has merit.

“The more front of mind, the more likely that a point-of-sale decision is going to be made in your favor,” he said. In other words, if consumers are aware of your product, by whatever means, they’re more likely to buy it.

While Croxall is dubious that a meme renaissance could have a lasting impact on a brand’s success, he argued that it could be an effective bid to gain Gen Z’s attention. The young generation is bitter on beer, preferring cannabis or just not drinking at all for health reasons. However, Zoomers will engage with memes, as illustrated by the pandemic-era meme stock revolution. It’s up to beer companies to strike a chord with young buyers who aren’t thirsty for their products.

“If there’s a new hit brewery trying to reach Gen Z, I would be trying to associate myself with the things that resonate with them,” Croxall said. “I’d just be very careful to do it on the legal side.”

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