Federal Court Finds Internet Survey Evidence Inadmissible
Methodology problems result in exclusion of survey results in trademark dispute
At issue in Tokai of Canada Ltd. v. Kingsford Products Company, LLC, was the admissibility of evidence that was generated by a consumer survey, which was designed to test consumer reaction to the use of the word “KING.” The plaintiff was trying to register this as a trademark for barbeques and butane lighters, but the defendant objected based on its numerous trademarks with the word “KINGSFORD” used with similar products. As fresh evidence on judicial review the plaintiffs had sought to lead expert evidence of an internet survey that comprised 707 interviews with consumers who had purchased, or planned to purchase, a butane lighter. Justice Fuhrer noted that as a survey evidence is a species of expert opinion evidence it must meet the usual requirements for admissibility, and:
Further, to be considered relevant, the survey must be both reliable (in that if it were repeated it would produce the same results) and valid (in that the right questions were put to the right pool of survey participants in the right way and in the right circumstances to produce the evidence sought)[.]
Here, there were both validity and reliability problems with the survey evidence proffered, which “highlights the challenges in attempting to simulate a consumer’s imperfect recollection at the time when they encounter the products and trademark in issue in the marketplace.” There were four particular deficiencies. First, the survey referred only to “butane lighters” but it might not have been clear to the average consumer, who was in a hurry, whether this referred to cigarette lighters or utility lighters, which could have skewed results. Second, some completed surveys were pulled from the results evaluated because the market researcher conducting the survey judged they had been “completed too quickly,” yet quick completion was likely to be a feature of a survey which was meant to capture the first impressions of the average, hurried, consumer.
Third, some survey participants were permitted to take many hours to complete the survey, which again was incorrect methodology for a survey meant to obtain first impressions. Finally there were contextual and other gaps in some survey questions. For example, “[t]he manner in which the survey participant was shown the brand name KING online [was] not reflective of the manner in which the trademark would be encountered in the marketplace in the applicable circumstances (i.e. on packaging or the goods themselves, potentially along side other similar products, such as on a store shelf).” In particular, an online survey, Justice Fuhrer felt, was not a good means by which to emulate how consumers would encounter the goods in a store, as opposed to a commercial website. Due to all of these flaws, the evidence was not sufficiently reliable or valid, and thus was excluded.