The Best Part of Waking Up is a Quarter-Million Dollars in Your Cup

In 1995, moviegoers were treated to a psychological thriller titled “Copycat.” It has generally good reviews — a 75% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes to go with a 64% audience score on the same site, and the late Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars out of four. If you read through some of the reviews, you’ll see the same trend — a decent but not spectacular plot sets an acceptable floor, and the star power of Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, and Russell Christoff carry the film beyond those limitations.

Wait, you don’t know who Russell Christoff is? Don’t worry, you’re not alone — he only had a tiny role in that movie and has no other significant acting credits to his name. It’s safe to say that the success of “Copycat” isn’t due to him; he never made it as an actor and isn’t all that recognizable.

Which is unfortunate for Taster’s Choice.

Taster’s Choice is a brand of instant coffee commonly available in grocery stores throughout the United States and Canada. For decades, the brand was centered on a picture of the “taster,” a person looking longingly at a cup of steaming coffee and enjoying the aroma that comes out of the mug. While we don’t see the “taster” actually tasting the coffee, the implication is that this person has a discerning palate and, given the choice of any of the many instant coffee brands, chooses Taster’s Choice. You can see an example in the image on the right.

In 1997 — two years after “Copycat” came to theaters — Nestlé Canada, the makers of Taster’s Choice, redesigned its labels, adopting a picture of the taster as seen above. For the next five years, they sold Taster’s Choice around the world — “in 18 countries, including the United States, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Israel, and Kuwait,” according to Deseret News — earning more than $500 million in profits. But they made a mistake in the process.

In 2002, while standing in line at Home Depot, another shopper came up to the not-quite-famous Russell Christoff. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she “casually mentioned that he looked like the guy on her coffee jar at home.” Christoff — who at this point in his life had made a career as a teacher — wasn’t really sure what to say. He had done some acting and modeling work previously, including ads for credit card companies and Xerox, as well as a very tiny role in Copycat. But as far as he could recall, he hadn’t ever done any work for any coffee brands. But, as the Chronicle continues, “a few days later, he was buying Bloody Mary mix at a drugstore, and there it was — his image on a jar of Taster’s Choice, on the shelf nearby. The hair was black in the picture, unlike his now-silver locks, but the arching eyebrows and narrow lips and chin were unmistakable.”

What had happened was simple. In the mid-1970s, Nestlé hired Christoff, then only 19 years old, to do a photo shoot for another product. Christoff was paid $250 for his time and the agreement he signed promised him $2,000 more if the company used his photo for the product in question. They didn’t, and the entire exchange was forgotten by both Christoff and the company. But more than 20 years later, a marketer working on the Taster’s Choice brand redesign came across Christoff’s photos and, not seeing any restrictions on their use, took it for the new labels. And, yes, that’s Christoff on the label above.

An honest mistake, sure, but an expensive one. Nestlé wasn’t entitled to use the photos; they declined to use it previously and their agreement with Christoff required them to negotiate new terms if Nestlé wanted to use his likeness on another product. So Christoff sued. Nestlé offered him $100,000, according to the Chronicle, but Christoff believed he could get a lot more. Specifically, his lawyers argued that under California law, he was entitled to 15% of Taster’s Choice’s profits during the years that his image was used without permission. Nestlé decided to take their chances in court and lost. The jury agreed with Christoff, awarding him a whopping $15.6 million dollars.

Neither Christoff nor Nestlé likely believed that amount would stick on appeal, and the two sides ended up settling for an unreported amount, but likely in the ballpark of $250,000. He probably didn’t use any of the money to buy Taster’s Choice; as he told the press, he prefers freshly-ground beans and never drinks instant coffee.

Bonus fact: Int he 1970s, former New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio found a new job — he was the celebrity endorser for Mr. Coffee, the drip coffee-making machine. (Here’s a TV ad, and the packaging for the machines had his image with the words “nationally advertised by Joe DiMaggio” on it, as seen here.) DiMaggio helped sell millions of Mr. Coffee coffeemakers, but it’s not likely he used one himself. According to the New York Times, “though Mr. DiMaggio was the face of Mr. Coffee for more than a decade, he had ulcers and rarely drank coffee himself.”

From the Archives: The Swedish Coffee (and Tea) Experiment: Yikes.