Sourced from an article by Marty Swant in B&T. Photo: Getty Images
Can you get sued for wishing a celebrity well?
It might seem innocuous, but using an ad to congratulate an athlete or another big name can earn brands their very own personal thank-you—a subpoena.
Last month, a jury decided that Safeway must pay $8.9 million to Jordan after using the basketball star’s name in an ad placed in Sports Illustrated. The ad ran in a 2009 Sports Illustrated commemorative issue marking Jordan’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The ad included a $2-off coupon for steaks. (Jordan says he plans to donate the $8.9 million to charity.)
It’s not the first time a celebrity has sued a company that used his or her name in an ad. Vanna White once sued Samsung for featuring a letter-turning game-show robot wearing a blond wig. Bette Midler sued Ford over a vocal sound-alike. Tom Waits sued Frito-Lay. More recently, Kim Kardashian sued Old Navy. Even Cliff and Norm from Cheers have sued Cheers bars over robots made in their likeness.
Although the Safeway suit isn’t entirely novel, legal experts say it’s a reminder that offering congrats isn’t entirely innocuous—if you’re selling a product in the process.
“It’s one thing to say ‘Hey, congratulations, Michael Jordan,'” said Frank Caprio, a patent and trade law attorney at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings. “I don’t know if I would be subject to any sort of liability. But if I said ,’Congratulations, Michael Jordan. I’m a big fan. Come buy a car at my dealership,’ then you’re getting into trouble.”
Legal risks aside, congratulating an athlete or another star might not even be worth it, said Michael Dunn, CEO of brand consultancy Prophet. He said it can lead to a slippery slope if an attempt doesn’t feel authentic or relevant. Dunn said if the celebrity isn’t already a part of a brand’s storytelling, an agency should ask: What is the reason for supporting them now?
Jordan’s case revolved around the grocery chain’s violation of the Illinois Right of Publicity Act, which outlines an individual’s right to control and choose how his or her identity is used for commercial purposes.
Australia of course has different laws and we’re not quite as prolific when it comes to filing legal claims (yet), but maybe it would be a good idea to think twice before jumping on the Jarryd Hayne congratulations wagon too quickly?