Watchdog group cites abuse of Switzerland's symbol

Wait. Should This Soup Have a Swiss Cross?

Policing the use of the Swiss flag on everything from packages of cookies to instant soup can be a heavy cross to bear, but someone has to do it.

For 66 years, the Society for the Promotion of Swiss Products and Services, or Swiss Label, has tried to prevent any group in Switzerland from misusing the national emblem - a white cross on a red field. But lately, many companies wantonly use the emblem to sell the image of Switzerland to consumers, and that has the president of Swiss Label, well, quite cross.

"It's abuse," says Alfred Oggier. "No one applies the law anymore. So this year I've decided to try to get the government to intervene."

On the side of Swiss Label is a federal law dating from 1931 that prohibits using the federal cross on products not associated with the society.

In theory, violators of the law can be slapped with fines of up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($3,525) or a maximum two-month prison sentence. But both laws are considered relics by some, and that explains why so many are getting away with this fashion of excessive flag-waving.

Yet few cases of copyright abuse are pursued, says Eric Meier, chief of division of brands for the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property in Bern, the capital. Enforcement of the law falls to Switzerland's cantons, or states, and most prosecutors are too busy to pursue a 66-year-old law considered a throwback to more protectionist times, Meier says.

To qualify for the Swiss Label, several requirements must be met: More than 50 percent of the product must be manufactured in Switzerland, and the company must pay an annual membership fee of between 300 francs and 400 francs ($210 to $280) to the society, for example. Among the few goods here eligible to use the emblem are Swiss Army knives and some brands of cheese.

Mr. Oggier says companies are illegally using the emblem to fool consumers that a brand is truly Swiss-made.

"Nestl sells chocolate bars made in Germany that carry the Swiss emblem," he says. "Last year, I bought a shirt that said Made in Italy; it [too] had the emblem."

According to a recent poll, 68.4 percent of Swiss people know Swiss Label controls the use of the federal cross. But a walk through a supermarket shows just how seriously the law is taken: not at all. Shelves are stocked with dozens of goods not necessarily Swiss-made that are emblazoned with the Swiss emblem.

"Our cookies have a long tradition [of being sold] here," says Sylvana Pivetta, public relations and marketing for Kambly, a Swiss cookie company. "The little flag on the packaging simply goes with the Alps pictured there."

AMONG the problems facing Swiss Label in fighting widespread use of the national emblem are the exceptions to the 1931 law. It's legal to use the emblem for decoration. And it's legal to use the emblem for publicity.

In addition, given the current climate of globalization, some companies want to mark products with a national symbol in order to sell an idea of the country, says Philippe Oertl, spokesman for the Office of Swiss Commercial Expansion.

For example, marking a box of chocolate with the Swiss cross might evoke images of chalets nestled in the snow-capped Alps.

"For certain products typical of Switzerland, like chocolate or watches, you might want to have the little flag or something to identify it with Switzerland to try and break into new markets," said Mr. Oertl. "They buy these goods because they know they're Swiss, and so it's important for some people to have some sign of that."

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