Backlash follows celebrity suits over ads and parodies

August 27, 1993|By Aaron Epstein | Aaron Epstein,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Entertainer Bette Midler summoned her lawyers after an advertising agency hired a sound-alike singer to evoke yuppie memories by imitating Ms. Midler's "Do You Want to Dance?" for a Mercury Sable commercial.

Singer Tom Waits heard an imitator of his gravelly voice sing the praises of SalsaRio Doritos and became increasingly incensed by what he called "this corn chip sermon."

One-role personality Vanna White sued the creators of an ad that put a blond robot in a TV game show.

Ms. Midler won $400,000 in damages, Mr. Waits got $2.4 million and Ms. White earned a trial, raising questions about whether the legal system has gone too far to protect the exclusive right of celebrities to profit from their own talents and personalities.

At issue is whether the law is stifling free speech by chilling the creativity of those who would poke fun at famous people. One aspect of the controversy will be argued in the Supreme Court this fall in a case stemming from a parody of the copyrighted song "Oh, Pretty Woman."

Warns federal appeals court Judge Alex Kozinski: "Every famous person now has an exclusive right to anything that reminds the viewer of them." It is an "Orwellian notion," Judge Kozinski said, and "deserves a hard second look . . . Something very dangerous is going on here."

The case that triggered Judge Kozinski's alarm didn't involve a sound-alike or a look-alike -- but, well, a not-quite-alike.

Samsung Electronics executives approved what they thought was a clever theme for an ad campaign: No matter what odd changes the future may bring, people will still use Samsung products.

One ad showed a raw steak accompanied by this prediction: "Revealed to be health food. 2010 A.D." The controversial ad showed an unidentified, comely female robot dressed in a blond wig, evening gown and jewelry, and posing next to a game board much like TV's popular "Wheel of Fortune."

The caption: "Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D."

Ms. White, whose card-turning abilities on that show made hers a household name, wasn't amused at the notion that an untalented robot could replace her. The federal appeals court in California, which usually has the last word on Hollywood lawsuits, said Ms. White had a legitimate complaint of invasion of her "right of publicity."

To the California court, it wasn't important whether Ms. White had ascended to celebrity status by rare talent, dumb luck or both. Nor did it matter that no one could mistake a robot for her, or that Samsung hadn't purloined her name, likeness or voice. The robot was clearly meant to depict Ms. White, and that was enough to entitle her to a trial, the court majority concluded.

Four judges signed scorching dissents. Under the expanded view of the law, one judge observed, Gene Autry could have sued other singing cowboys, Johnny Weismuller could have demanded damages from other Tarzans, and Sylvester Stallone could sue actors who play blue-collar boxers.

Washington lawyer Andrew Sacks, who represents advertising agencies, said that because of the Vanna White case, "When my clients come up with a great idea and everybody's excited about it, I have had to say it's too risky." Mr. Sacks said he recently counseled a client to water-down ads based on depictions of famous television chefs.

"The whole country has lost its sense of humor," said Minneapolis lawyer Stephen Bergerson, who also advises ad agencies. "People get sued for doing things that we used to be amused about."

Parodying celebrities for profit can be risky business. Many targets don't find it funny, even if their business is humor.

Entertainer Johnny Carson sued an outfit in Michigan that marketed "Here's Johnny" portable toilets as "The World's Foremost Commodian." (He won.) Filmmaker Woody Allen fumed, then won a court order, after a look-alike swiped his "schlemiel" persona to proclaim in a TV commercial that a New York clothing store "made me a sex symbol."

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sued to bar the use of look-alike secretary Barbara Reynolds in a Dior ad. (Ms. Onassis won.) Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme recently sued at the sight of a rotund, full-bearded man, wearing a white cap and bandana, pushing Folger's coffee on TV.

Among the losers: Psychic Uri Geller, who complained a commercial showed a metal-bending psychic unable to stop a Timex watch through telekinesis; and Guy Lombardo, who objected to commercials depicting another band playing "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve.

Other losers were the Girl Scouts, which recoiled from a poster showing a pregnant Scout and the "Be Prepared" slogan above her protruding tummy, and the Toho Co., which protested its rights to movie monster Godzilla were impaired by Sears' tough "Bagzilla" garbage sacks.

Especially risky targets for a mocking ad are famous people who shun commercialism. Cary Grant was one of them. A court found him entitled to extra damages for "lacerations to his feelings" caused by Esquire magazine's publication of his

head superimposed on a clothing model's torso.

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