Del Taco Was Once Sued Over Their Mascot. Here's Why

We are rooting hard for the success of Del Taco's latest entry in the ongoing Chicken Sandwich Wars that began in summer 2019. The Honey Mango Crispy Chicken is a truly a genius combination that promises to "make 2021 sweeter." But it has serious competition, and the fact remains that Del Taco has made a strategic mistake or two over the years which have contributed to its ongoing status as the underdog of the major Mexican-American fast-food restaurant chains. One such mistake was so epic that we cannot help but recall it now. 

It concerned what was to have been a major television ad campaign featuring a masked, Mexican-American character wearing a black flat-brimmed hat, who went by the name "Del Taco." The campaign launched in 1999 with a minute-long spot purporting to establish the "Legend of Del Taco." It appears Del Taco was to have served as a mascot for the restaurant chain, like McDonald's Ronald McDonald or Burger King's King.

Spoiler alert: It did not end well for Del Taco, which got sued over its new mascot. But to be fair, none of these ad campaigns did the fast-food restaurants responsible for them any favors either.

Del Taco got sued for trademark infringement relating to its 'Del Taco' mascot

It's not that the ads themselves were not cute and effective. That crafty Del Taco mascot was not only charming, but he had remarkably good teeth as compared to the other characters shown in the ads. More importantly, he had a secret weapon: a secret stash of hot sauce packets, which he wore on his chest in the shape of an "X." The problem, however, is that some people could not help but notice that the whole "Legend of Del Taco" thing felt familiar. In fact, it brought to mind another masked Western-American character, that of "Zorro," the protagonist of 1919's Legend of Zorro and 1998's Mask of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas (who we don't hear much from anymore, and here's why).

Well, unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with Hollywood giant TriStar Pictures and its partner, Zorro Productions, which together brought a lawsuit against Del Taco (the restaurant, not the mascot) just one month after the ad campaign launched, according to Funding Universe, a site that helps match start-ups with capital. The claim? Trademark infringement. And the remedies sought were not merely that Del Taco cease and desist using the Zorro-like character to sell its tacos and such, but also monetary damages of more than a million dollars, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Del Taco also got sued by Shaquille O'Neal for another mascot

Del Taco's then-president, Rob Petty, told the Los Angeles Times, "He's not Zorro. We didn't set out to copy Zorro," but that's not relevant in a trademark infringement lawsuit, in which the question inevitably comes down not to good intentions but to, "are the characters confusingly similar?" And yeah, there was a strong enough argument that they were, in fact, confusingly similar, that Del Taco did not want to take its chances in court. It settled the lawsuit in January 2000, agreeing to make significant changes to the Del Taco character, but eventually tossing the ad campaign entirely.  

"Two years later, Shaquille O'Neal filed a similar suit against the chain, claiming that 'Shaq Johnson,' a character in Del Taco radio ads, violated his registered 'Shaq' trademark," according to Funding Universe, which went on to say "Shaq Johnson" was canceled soon after. 

As the chicken wars proceed, we do hope that Del Taco has finally learned its lesson: Creativity requires the actual creation of something new. Judging by their mouthwatering Honey Mango Crispy Chicken sandwich, we think maybe this time they are on the right track.