obama image, obama products, can obama protect his image
Matt Rourke/AP

Obama’s Image Problem

February 04, 2009 03:01 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Products that depict the Obamas have drawn criticism from the first family; however, the president may ultimately be powerless to legally protect their images.

Obama for the People

Toymaker Ty Warner has renamed the “Marvelous Malia” and “Sweet Sasha” plush dolls after complaints by the First Family.

The company first said that the dolls were named after Malia and Sasha Obama, then claimed they weren’t. On Monday, they chose to rename the dolls Mariah and Sydney.

The amount of Obama-themed merchandise appears to be unprecedented. According to Brad Adgate of ad agency Horizon Media, “I can’t remember this ever happening to an active politician before, as a spokesperson or as an image for a brand.”

Obama’s name and campaign slogans have been adopted to sell a range of products, including Ben and Jerry’s “Yes Pecan” ice cream flavor and Ikea’s “Embrace Change” marketing campaign. In addition, J. Crew stock prices and Web page views went up after the company announced that it had provided several key aspects of Inauguration Day wear: the Obama girls’ coats, the first lady’s gloves and the president’s white bow tie.

Legally protecting the president’s image may be an uphill battle. White House lawyers have yet to devise a broad strategy for guarding Obama’s name, image and campaign slogans, and may have to make case-by-case decisions on the matter, which will have to take state laws into account. However, experts doubt the president will pursue legal action.

“The short answer is he’s not going to stop it,” Jane Ginsburg, a law professor at Columbia University in New York told the Los Angeles Times. “Even if in theory he might have such a right, the likelihood of his exercising it is probably not great.”

Ultimately it may come down to the nature of product presentation, Margaret Esquenet, a D.C.-based intellectual property lawyer, told NPR. If a company makes it seem that Obama is endorsing its product then the president may have cause to file suit.

Nevertheless, Esquenet notes, politicians have less of a right to control their image than anyone, Obama in particular, as he so strongly positioned himself as “a man of the people” throughout his campaign.

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Reference: Legal rights for public personas

Although Obama’s image may seem to belong to the people, the Obama family is protected by privacy and publicity rights as defined by the United States Copyright Act. According to the National Library of Medicine, however, cases are not handled on a federal level and would have to be taken to individual state courts, which vary in their applications of the law.

Companies or individuals are more likely to face litigation when subjects are ridiculed or “presented in a libelous manner.” However, by and large, uses of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama have been positive, used primarily to bolster a product or brand.

“It’s just our very capitalistic approach to a fascination with a political leader,” Bruce Newman, a DePaul University marketing professor, told the Los Angeles Times.

Related: French first family fights to protect image

Members of the French first family, Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, have encountered image issues of their own. In December, Bruni won a lawsuit against the clothing company Pardon for distributing shopping bags printed with a naked picture of her taken during her days as a fashion model.

Earlier in 2008, the couple sued the Irish airline Ryanair for using their photo in an advertisement. Sarkozy also filed suit against the company K&B, which manufactured voodoo dolls with his likeness.

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