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Video: Naked Cowboy's legal battle

By
TODAY contributor
updated 6/25/2008 11:08:36 AM ET 2008-06-25T15:08:36

The Naked Cowboy stands around Times Square all day playing the guitar in his underwear — but that doesn’t give the maker of M&M’s the right to make fun of him to sell candy, he says.

That, says Robert Burck, the man in the tighty-whities — and not much else — is the naked truth behind the $4-million lawsuit he’s filed against Mars, the maker of M&M’s, along with the advertising agency that (un)dressed up a morsel of candy in Naked Cowboy gear for a commercial. On Monday, a New York judge, after reviewing the bare legal facts, ruled that Burck can go ahead with the lawsuit.

That’s made the human tourist attraction a happy guy.

“I came to New York City to be the most celebrated entertainer of all time,” the celebrated mostly-naked guy told TODAY’s Natalie Morales Wednesday morning live from Times Square. “There are certain values that are representative of that effort — eating candy is not one of them. When they dressed up the M&M to personify the Naked Cowboy, they implied that I was endorsing their product.”

After all, just because he goes out in public wearing just a straw cowboy hat, white boots and his signature white briefs with “Naked Cowboy” boldly lettered across the backside doesn’t mean Burck isn’t a clean-living guy.

“Type II diabetes and childhood obesity is epidemic,” he told Morales. “I am the opposite of that. I don’t endorse that product.”

Buff in the buff
In fact, the 38-year-old Burck is a fitness buff — a fact that does not escape the notice of the myriad women who pose for pictures with him in Times Square. He says he runs at least 10 miles a day and subsists on grilled chicken and steamed veggies. He even runs an organization — the Joe Gibson Foundation — to help the homeless. On his left shoulder is a tattoo of Jesus.

The commercial he found so objectionable is part of a series of ads created by the Chute Gerdeman company that feature cartoon M&M’s mimicking various New York icons, including King Kong, the Statue of Liberty and the scantily clad cowpoke. In the Naked Cowboy spot, a blue M&M strums a guitar dressed in briefs, boots and cowboy hat.

Lawyers for Mars claimed in court that the company has a First Amendment right to parody Burck’s character and moved to dismiss the suit. Burck claimed that free speech does not include the right to use his image to sell a product and to imply that he endorses that product.

NBC News legal editor Dan Abrams said the judge’s decision to allow Burck to proceed bodes well for his case.

“He’s probably got a pretty good shot, because, after all, that blue M&M does have a pair of underwear on, a cowboy hat and a guitar,” Abrams said.

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News in brief(s)
Morales, showing a keen ability to get to the bottom of things, asked Burck about reports that his outfit is two-ply.

“I actually wear two pairs,” he confirmed. He explained that he was arrested in Indianapolis once and was told that if the outlines of any personal body parts were discernible, he would be in violation of the law.

A native of Cincinnati, Burck started singing and playing the guitar in public in Florida. When he didn’t get a satisfying response, a friend suggested he strip down to his undies. With that, a star was born.

He moved up to New York City more than a decade ago, and he now performs in Times Square some 300 days a year, dressed in nothing but briefs, hat and boots regardless of the weather. He says he makes $5,000 an hour from money tourists stuff in his boots and into a hole cut into his guitar.

He’s been rejected by “American Idol,” but he’s had plenty of bit parts in movies and commercials that he’s approved. And he charges $25,000 a day for personal appearances outside of New York.

Burck also claims to be the most-photographed man in the world and says more than 50 million unique pictures have been taken of him.

“I’m just contributing to human happiness all day,” he said in a kind of generic cowboy drawl. “And people are tipping me in the gee-tar because there’s no room in my underwear.”

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