#ShowMeTheMoney: Sofia Vergara’s Settlement of Social Media False Endorsement Lawsuit Highlights Modern Legal Issue

Social Media false endorsementLast month, Sofia Vergara, star of ABC’s Modern Family, reached a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the actress against beauty company Venus Concept for alleged improper use of her likeness on television and in social media, which Vergara alleged created the false impression that she endorsed the Venus Concept brand or its treatment products. In the lawsuit, Vergara claimed $15 million in damages.

The origin of the dispute dates back to 2014, when Vergara posted a selfie to her WhoSay account (an Instagram-like social media app) during a “skin tightening” massage with the Venus Legacy machine. The posted image featured a close-up of a portion of Vergara’s face, with a massage technician using the machine on her lower back, and a large poster of Marilyn Monroe’s laughing face hanging on the wall in the background. In the post, Vergara included the caption “What is so funny Marilyn?? Legacy massage at @drlancerrx.”

Venus Concept later used the photo during a television segment on the show “Extra!,” and posted it to several social media pages, using captions such as “Loved by bombshell actress Sofia Vergara[,]” which, in her suit, Vergara alleged made it appear like she endorsed the massage treatment. However, according to her claims, Vergara thought the treatment was a “waste of time and money with little in the way of any results” and that she “would not use it again and certainly would not endorse it nor agree to appear in an international advertisement campaign to promote it.”

Vergara, alleged to be the highest-paid woman in television, claimed she in the past made $15 million for endorsement deals, and therefore sued Venus Concept (and various affiliated companies) for that exact amount, i.e., what she allegedly would have been paid for an endorsement. Previously, Vergara has appeared in campaigns for such brands as CoverGirl, Diet Pepsi, Kmart, Comcast Xfinity, State Farm, Rooms To Go, Head and Shoulders, and Quaker Oats.

While the lawsuit did not reach a final ruling on the merits (and the settlement amount is undisclosed), the case is yet another illustration of the very real modern phenomenon of implied false endorsement litigation surrounding companies’ use of celebrities’ image, likeness, or work in social media promotion or advertising. For example, in 2015, the pioneering hip-hop group Beastie Boys successfully sued Monster Energy based on the beverage company’s unauthorized use of certain Beastie Boys songs in an online promotional video. The Beastie Boys claimed false endorsement and copyright infringement after the montage of Beastie Boys hits was posted on YouTube and Facebook. The Beastie Boys have long declined to license their music for use in advertisements, and, similar to Vergara’s claim, maintained that use of their songs without permission in Monster’s online commercial gave the consuming public the false impression that they endorsed Monster, its advertising campaign, or its products.

The omnipresence and popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have led to a sea change in how brands and advertisers seek to reach consumers, with paid (but not always disclosed) social media endorsements by celebrities and athletes driving consumer demand for products like never before, as well as the creation of a cottage-industry of “social influencers,” namely, aspirational fashionistas, models, or musicians, paid by brands to endorse particular products via social media due to the volume of their Instagram account followers. Indeed, partnering with such popular social media content creators is now one of the most effective ways for brands to reach and engage with consumers who spend hours each day on social media platforms and look to top Instagram influencers to make purchasing decisions.

In that past, celebrity false endorsement suits often involved an advertiser imitating a celebrity’s likeness or voice to sell a product without that celebrity’s consent, to create the impression of some association with that celebrity; in those cases, the advertisers were the creators of the allegedly problematic content. However, as the Vergara case illustrates, in this modern social media landscape of re-tweeting and re-posting, brand owners may still face liability even if they are not the creators of the content, and celebrities are keenly aware of the value of a paid social media endorsement. Merely reposting a celebrity’s Instagram account (or a paparazzi photo), even if well-intentioned, may open a brand owner up to a false implied endorsement claim if consent of the celebrity is not first obtained.

Under Lanham Act case law, a false implied claim is one that may be literally true but nonetheless deceives or misleads consumers by its implications. The FTC’s “Guide Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” defines endorsement as any advertising message “that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.” A celebrity’s unpaid mention or use of a product in a social media post is certainly valuable to a brand owner as a “free” endorsement. And it may be tempting for brand owners to immediately re-post a celebrity’s social media account which features or seemingly approves of that brand owner’s product. But, as the Vergara case illustrates, consideration needs to first be given to the implications of re-posting the celebrity’s account, and any related captions or editorializing, so as to not create the impression of endorsement, authorization, or sponsorship by the celebrity without his or her prior consent.

Copyright © 2017, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.

Congratulating A Celebrity Could Cost You A Lawsuit re: Right of Publicity and False Endorsement

When a celebrity does a good deed or a sports figure achieves a major accomplishment, companies may feel like sending a public “shout out” to that individual – whether it be through a tweet, a Facebook post, or some other media.  However, companies need to be very careful that such a reference to the public figure does not suggest any type of endorsement of or association with its products or services, which could constitute a right of publicity violation.  The right of publicity is generally understood to be the right of a person to control the commercial exploitation of his or her identity, and prevent commercial appropriation of his or her identity by others without permission.  Generally, a right of publicity violation consists of unauthorized use of a protected aspect of identity (i.e. name, image, likeness) for commercial purposes, such as use on commercial products and in commercial advertising.

Last year we mentioned basketball legend Michael Jordan’s right of publicity lawsuit against Jewel Food Stores. In 2009, Jewel Food Stores ran an advertisement in Sports Illustrated magazine containing congratulatory text about Jordon’s induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame along with a photo of Jordan’s namesake basketball shoes.  However, the advertisement also featured Jewel’s trademarks: its red and white logo and the slogan “Good Things Are Just Around the Corner.”  The ad copy played on the slogan to refer to Jordan as a “fellow Chicagoan who was ‘just around the corner’ for so many years.”

In response, Jordan filed suit against Jewel for right of publicity violation, false endorsement under the Lanham Act, and unfair competition, seeking $5 million in damages.  Jewel argued that the notice was non-commercial speech and should be protected by the First Amendment, and the district court agreed.  However, the Court of Appeals held that although the advertisement had a celebratory theme, there was an unmistakable commercial function also.  Even though it did not purport to sell any specific product, it served to enhance the store’s brand in the minds of consumers.  Specifically, the court noted it was

image advertising, aimed at promoting goodwill for the Jewel-Osco brand by exploiting public affection for Jordan at an auspicious moment in his career.

There has been some activity by the court since our last post and the suit’s remand.  In response to Jewel filing third-party claims against Time Inc. (publisher of Sports Illustrated) for contribution and indemnification, the district court ruled that Time could not be held liable, as state law would prevent Jewel from imposing contribution liability on Time.  Additionally, the court has denied Jordan’s request for summary judgment on his claim under the Illinois Right of Publicity Act, stating that the appellate court’s conclusions about the function of the ad under the First Amendment did not answer the question as to whether Jordan’s identity was used for a commercial purpose under state law.  Finally, just last week the court ruled that Jordan has a statutory right to sue Jewel, in response to Jewel’s assertion that Jordan had transferred his publicity rights to his loan-out company, rendering him the improper plaintiff.

A jury trial for this case is set for December 8.

Companies who may be considering using a celebrity’s name or likeness in any contextwithout permission should think again, especially in light of lawsuits like this one.

© Copyright 2015 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP