During their raucous divorce trial last winter, American Equity Mortgage cofounders Ray Vinson and Deanna Daughhetee spent much time and energy battling over the reasons for the company's success.
Vinson's legal beagles argued that it was his marketing genius that drove the company's fortunes sky-high that, and the folksy manner in which he delivered American Equity's ubiquitous phone number, 878-9999.
Not so, countered Daughhetee's team. It was her unmatched business acumen that spawned the multimillion dollar company.
Ultimately, Circuit Court Judge Michael Burton awarded Deanna Daughhetee control of the company the Vinsons founded together in 1992. Burton also ordered Daughhetee to buy out Ray Vinson for $16 million; the judge reasoned that with such a large amount of money, Vinson would have little trouble landing on his feet.
"I don't have any doubt," said Burton, "that Mr. Vinson with his voice will be able to capitalize on that and continue to do so and earn considerable money in the future."
Vinson and his company, Vinson Mortgage Group, which he formed last July, have blanketed the St. Louis-area airwaves with an onslaught of commercial spots. It's almost impossible now to turn on the radio without hearing his homespun Southern slang, asking would-be home-equity or bill-consolidation borrowers with "less than perfect credit" to call his number, now with a new 839 prefix.
It's that very voice and those final four numbers "naahnty-naahn, naahnty-naahn" that have sparked the most recent legal fireworks, for yet another round of Vinson vs. Vinson.
In August Daughhetee's American Equity Mortgage filed suit against her ex-husband, asking that the court issue an injunction preventing Vinson Mortgage from airing any radio spots that have Vinson barking out those famous final four digits.
"He picked a telephone number that sounded just like American Equity Mortgage, ending in 99-99, which American Equity had been pounding home for years," says Mark Sableman, the St. Louis attorney representing American Equity. (Sableman also serves as counsel on First Amendment issues for Riverfront Times.) "He decided to advertise with his voice, which was still very closely associated with American Equity by twelve years of saturation advertising. He has used the same combination of catchphrases."
At last year's divorce trial, which dissolved the couple's thirteen-year marriage, Ray Vinson recalled the early days of American Equity's vigorous radio campaign. "We immediately started getting calls," he said. "We only had four lines with push buttons on them, and I could see if the lights lit up. You could see them light up."
At the time, Daughhetee conceded that the early ads were "a turning point." But later in the trial, one of her attorneys, James Carmody, suggested that the public has grown tired of Vinson's "yokel" approach, finding it "annoying and irritating." He even implied that the spots may be damaging to the company's bottom line.
On January 24 United States District Court Judge Rodney Sippel declined to issue an injunction against Ray Vinson, citing a basic tenet of capitalism: Healthy competition serves the public interest.
Still, Sableman vows to continue to fight to banish Vinson's high-octave voice from the airwaves. "[W]hen Vinson Mortgage advertises on the radio," says Sableman, "these advertisements will, quite naturally, bring AEM to the consumer's mind."
Sableman adds that Vinson's years of pitching on behalf of American Equity, plus his use of certain buzzwords and phrases, is certain to leave listeners thinking that he's promoting Daughhetee's company.
Nonsense, argues Lee Marshall of St. Louis' Bryan Cave law firm, counsel for Ray Vinson and Vinson Mortgage. In haggling over trademark cases, Marshall explains, the petitioner must first prove that its rights have been infringed upon.
Marshall says American Equity uses the "99-99" in fewer than half of the cities where it does business. As a result, the company cannot properly claim the phone number as its trademark. It must also prove that customers who hear the ads will be confused about who is doing the advertising, adds Marshall.
The attorney also disputes an American Equity survey that revealed that approximately 30 percent of respondents who listened to Ray Vinson's recent ads thought they were associated with Vinson's former company.
Finally, Marshall adds that American Equity abandoned any association with Ray Vinson during the divorce proceedings. At the time, the company's stock was falling. Vinson offered to return to the airwaves to help resuscitate it.
Daughhetee declined the offer, in part because of the acrimonious divorce and in part because three female American Equity employees had, during the weeklong trial, accused Vinson of sexual misconduct.
When she cut ties with Vinson, argues Marshall, Daughhetee effectively forfeited the rights to use his voice, therefore freeing him to use his vocal talents to win over customers for his new business.
"If there's anything about '99-99' that people associate with American Equity Mortgage," says Marshall, "it was because of the way Ray said it. They have made it crystal clear that there is no way that they are ever going to want Ray to say '99-99' for American Equity ever again."
Vinson Mortgage now operates in seven cities, including Kansas City, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Vinson views his success as vindication.
Says Vinson, "For Deanna to say that I didn't start the company, I didn't grow the company, that my marketing expertise meant nothing to the company, and I had no new marketing ideas and whatever marketing ideas I did have were obsolete I felt like I needed to do something about that, because it's just not true."
Counters Sableman, "It's not fair or proper under trademark law for someone else to go and imitate those very same signals and trademarks that have been embedded in the consumer's mind."
"The '99-99' phone number is not interfering with anybody's business," maintains Vinson. "It is a number. It's four digits. Anybody has the right to say those numbers. It's the way I say it that makes all the difference in the world."