May 8, 1990

May8On this day in 1990, Tom Waits won $2.5 million in a lawsuit against Frito-Lay. In an unusual case of voice theft, a Los Angeles court ruled that Frito-Lay unlawfully used a Waits sound-alike/voice impersonator in its Doritos ads, as well as replicating his look and mannerisms with Chester the Cheetah.

A four-week trial was held, the first in which damages have been awarded to a famous singer for having his image smeared by an advertising impersonator.

While preparing the 1988 ad, a Tracy-Locke copywriter listened repeatedly to Waits’ song, ‘Step Right Up’, and played the recording for Frito-Lay executives at a meeting where the commercial’s script was approved. And when impersonator/singer Steve Carter, who imitates Waits in his stage act, performed the jingle, Tracy-Locke supervisors were concerned enough about Carter’s voice that they consulted a lawyer, who counselled caution.

When Waits was asked how he felt about the outcome he answered, “I feel like maybe we’ve made the path easier for others to follow.”

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