Planet Money Indicator: NPR




This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I’m Wailin Wong here with Adrian Ma and Darian Woods.


What’s new?


Eh eh.

WONG: And we’re all here for the indicators of the week.

WOODS: Today we have burgers in Russia. There is vaping in the United States

MA: Plus a newly filed word that we have already used several times in this introduction.

WOODS: I have the lawyers online.

WONG: We’ll see if they can help us out of this mess after the break.


WOODS: My indicator of the week starts with American burgers in Russia.

WONG: McDonald’s burgers or not – since they pulled out?

WOOD: Yeah. So McDonald’s, the company, withdrew from Russia after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But I learned this week that if you’re in Russia, you can still get American burgers without a problem.

MA: A hamburger escape.

WOODS: That’s a bunch of American restaurants that never left. So Carl’s Jr., Hard Rock Cafe, and TGI Fridays all have bars or restaurants operating in Russia right now with their branding on them.

MA: Wow.

WONG: I didn’t even know that TGI Friday extended outside of the United States. It sounds very American.

WOOD: Yeah. They are part of 247 multinationals that normally operate in Russia, you know, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine never happened. And that’s according to a tracker run at Yale University. So these businesses aren’t just bars and restaurants. They are also technology companies and clothing companies, etc. And the 247s are defined by Yale as digging because they defy public demands to leave or scale back their activities in Russia. And there were a lot of sanctions, and maybe some financial arrangements had to be changed. But a company like Carl’s Jr. or TGI Fridays can still operate legally in Russia.

WONG: Do these companies explain why they stay in Russia?

WOODS: So for Carl’s Jr. and TGI Fridays, they said their franchisees were independently owned and operated in Russia. Carl’s Jr. told me they no longer support their Russian franchisees. And TGI Fridays and Hard Rock Cafe donate money from their Russian franchises to Ukrainian humanitarian causes.

MA: So these companies are – what? – like, just trying to keep a low profile and hope no one notices?

WOODS: I mean, who knows? I was just watching Google Trends to find out how often Americans Googled Ukraine or Russia, and both search words dropped back to lower levels before the invasion even happened.

MA: Okay. This is our first indicator – 247 companies are digging in Russia. Now we have Wailin Wong. What is your indicator of the week?

WONG: My indicator is $1.6 billion. This is the estimated value of tobacco company Altria’s stake in Juul Labs, the e-cigarette company. And $1.6 billion might seem like a lot until you consider that Altria paid $12.8 billion for the stake in 2018.

WOODS: It’s not a very good return on investment, I have to say.

MA: Let me get out my calculator. It is less.

WONG: Yeah. So at the time, Altria was betting on a future where adult smokers would switch from traditional cigarettes to the type of smokeless electronic cigarettes made by Juul. But this week, the FDA said Juul must stop selling and distributing all of its products in the United States, which includes both the company’s vape cartridges and its pods.

MA: Well, vaping has been under intense scrutiny for many years now, hasn’t it?

WONG: Yeah. This has been going on for many years now. And, you know, unlike some other countries, like the UK, US public health officials aren’t convinced that e-cigarettes help people quit smoking or that vaping is safer than conventional cigarettes . The FDA and lawmakers worry that instead of nudging adult smokers to change, companies like Juul are just attracting a whole new generation of young nicotine addicts.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I used products that were mostly fruit flavored from Juul.

WONG: And this is part of a video that was shown during a House subcommittee hearing last year.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And unfortunately, they’ve been very, very successful in getting a lot of my friends and I addicted to their products.

WONG: Juul hasn’t sold its sweet and fruity flavors like crème brûlée or mango since 2019. That left it with only its tobacco and menthol flavored pods, which it was allowed to continue selling while the FDA was carrying out an examination. This week’s order was the result of that review, and now even those tobacco pods are removed. This is a very big blow for Juul, which makes almost all of its revenue in the United States.

MA: A big hit for Juul in a cloud of minty vapor.

WONG: You know, Juul said it would fight the decision, but the general climate for tobacco companies seems pretty hostile in the United States right now. Just this week, the Biden administration said it wants to eliminate almost all nicotine from cigarettes sold in the United States.

WOOD: Alright. Well, good luck with that. I will believe it when I see it. Adrian Ma – third indicator of the week. Hit us.

MA: My indicator is three, like in a three-letter word.

WOODS: A three-letter word – OK, stretching the rules of what an indicator can be.

MA: But – OK, but stay with me. My three letter word is the. And that’s because this week the is a newly registered trademark of Ohio State University.

WOOD: Sorry. OKAY. Therefore THE is a registered trademark.

WONG: By a school in Ohio.

But of course.

WONG: So just to be clear, you’re not talking about Ohio State as a brand, just the word the…

MA: Yeah.

WONG: …Or the.

MA: I mean…

WONG: Oh, my God.

MA: What that basically means is that the State of Ohio has the exclusive right to put THE, for example, on branded t-shirts and caps. And if anyone wants to do that too, they’ll have to go through OSU or probably pay for it.

WOODS: I’m going to have to go through those trademark filings – see what happened here.

MA: So, I mean, it’s kind of fun. For example, I researched their application in the US Patent and Trademark Office. And basically what Ohio State was arguing is that the in Ohio State is part of their brand, right?

WOODS: OK, that makes sense.

MA: That’s their official name…

WOOD: Of course.

MA: …Since the school changed its name over a hundred years ago. And they also sell a lot of merchandise already with the word le in big letters, you know, being the only thing on it.

WONG: Really?

MA: Yeah.

WOOD: Alright. So it looked like they – you know, they had a tradition, and they wanted to make it official.

MA: Yes, that was part of it. And another part seems to be some sort of legal maneuver because it turns out that another brand a few months before also filed a trademark application.

WONG: It’s like 2022, and then there are, like, several companies that want to trademark after, like, how many years of that word, like, being in the English language (laughs).

MA: So the other entity that was vying for legal control over was Marc Jacobs – you know, the high-end fashion designer. The dispute got to the point where it nearly went to trial. And then finally, they turned around and said, like – you know what? – let’s settle this. We do different kinds of things. You make sports-related merchandise and the other makes high-end merchandise. So they said, let’s just share the word the. But that wasn’t the end of the matter as OSU’s trademark was denied twice before it was accepted. They had to convince the US Patent and Trademark Office that the was legally distinctive – you know, that is, it clearly identifies the OSU brand. But after a few back and forths, they finally got it. And at least when it comes to the context of college sports and apparel, OSU can now say it owns the.

WOOD: Alright. So we’re never going to shorten THE INDICATOR to just the.

MA: I mean, you might not want to do that without consulting the legal department first. But I mean, seriously, I think it’s fair to say that this story seems a bit frivolous, but brands have a serious purpose, don’t they? For example, when you buy a product with Coke or Crocs on the label, you know you are going to get Coke or Crocs and not a counterfeit. And that’s a similar reason why we also have a trademark. INDICATOR, dated November 26, 2019, is trademark number 5922928.

WOODS: You just memorized it.

MA: Oh, yeah, I read it every night. THE INDICATOR is a trademark for, in quotes, “downloadable audio podcasts in the field of business, financial and economic news and analysis of the global economy”.

WOODS: Except no substitute.

MA: Unless you pay us.

WONG: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jess Kung and Jamila Huxtable and engineered by Isaac Rodrigues. It has been verified by Catherine Yang (ph). Viet Le is our main producer. Kate Concannon is editing the show. And THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

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