Suit Takes Slice at Del Taco Ad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who is that masked man in Del Taco's new series of television commercials?

The Laguna Hills-based fast-food chain calls him "Del Taco," a swashbuckling hero who, according to its new advertising slogan, is "bringing better Mexican food to the people."

But TriStar Pictures and Zorro Productions Inc. are crying foul. They contend, in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles, that the dashing masked man too closely resembles the Zorro character to which they hold the exclusive rights.

The companies are suing Del Taco and the chain's Los Angeles advertising agency, WongDoody, to have the commercials yanked from the air. They also are seeking in excess of $1 million in damages and profits.

In the suit, Zorro Productions said it is the owner of all rights to trademarks and trade dress associated with Zorro, and that TriStar is the exclusive licensee for use of Zorro trademarks in motion pictures, among other things.

The character in the Del Taco commercials, they contend, is "confusingly similar" to the Zorro character and the advertising campaign is likely to confuse the public and dilute "the distinctive quality of the 'Zorro' character."

The 1998 film "The Mask of Zorro" starred Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones and was one of the major box-office successes of last summer.

Del Taco President Rob Petty said Tuesday that he doesn't understand the fuss.

"He's not Zorro. We didn't set out to copy Zorro," Petty said. "We did our homework out front making sure that we weren't stepping on any toes in this process. If they think we are then I guess the legal system will determine that. In the meantime, we'll just keep selling tacos and burritos and running the ads."

TriStar's parent, Sony Pictures Entertainment, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The ads, which spoof old spaghetti westerns, made their debut last month on television and radio promoting the chain's Macho Burritos.

The fictional "Del Taco" is called upon to fight against the tyranny of his nemesis, the Commandante, a character that is supposed to represent an unnamed "corporate conglomerate fast-food chain," according to Tracy Wong, chairman and creative director of WongDoody.

Petty said there are distinct physical differences between Zorro and "Del Taco." The fast-food character wears a serape instead of a cape, carries packets of Del Scorcho sauce in his bandoleer and has chilies hanging from his hat.

"We wanted to make it fun and not take ourselves too seriously," Petty said. "I think everyone takes themselves too seriously anyway. The character of Del Taco is the underdog fighting for the good people. It would be kind of stupid if I put a race car driver up there trying to do that."

Del Taco did an estimated $325 million in sales last year. The privately held chain has 340 stores in 10 states and is planning to open 14 new locations in Arizona this year. The chain has long lived in the shadow of Irvine-based Taco Bell Corp., which has more than 7,000 locations and recent annual sales topping $4 billion.

Times staff writer Neda Raouf contributed to this report.

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