Wednesday, January 6, 2010


He is rapidly becoming a fashion icon, a sort of 21st century standard-bearer for casual cool, but a guy who can also wear a suit in the classic tradition of Cary Grant. She is the definition of personal style and looks as ready for action in gym shoes and Capri pants as she does in a couture gown by a cutting edge designer.

Together or separately they’re easily too cool for school, as they say. If anybody can sell a product without saying a word, it is definitely these two. There’s only one problem. He is the President of the United States and she is the First Lady. And as we all know, while people in their position go political all the time, they never go commercial.

Until now. In New York this week, people in Times Square stopped hard in their tracks when they saw a billboard featuring President Obama modeling a Weatherproof jacket. Huffington Post reported Tuesday that Weatherproof purchased rights to the photo from Associated Press. The picture was taken when the President traveled to China in November.

The billboard comes right on the heels of PETA’s anti-fur ad featuring Mrs. Obama, alongside Oprah, Tyra Banks and Carrie Underwood. The copy reads, “Fur Free and Fabulous.”

So, how cool is that, that these two are using their clout and popularity to promote clothing sales and to stand up for the rights of animals? In two words – Not Cool. As if we haven’t dulled enough societal boundaries lately, now the first couple has become a sales tool. And to add insult to injury, neither of them authorized the use of their images for the sale of products or the promotion of social causes. PETA and Weatherproof each did this all on their own, without so much as seeking the approval of the Obamas.

Do we really want to see that much mixing of government and commerce? I don’t think so. It forces us to envision Nancy Pelosi selling Swiffer mops, or Barney Frank hawking condos in Boca. I’m telling you this: The day I see that whacked out Congresswoman Michelle Bachman in an ad for the America Rifle Association is the day I have to re-patriate myself to another continent somewhere.

There is no precedent for Presidents being used to sell outerwear, and there should not be. His job is to manage the system of government that allows for the free enterprise system. There are 300 million other Americans that Weatherproof can put on a billboard in the most high profile intersection in the country. Once we dull these lines, we open ourselves up to all types of complications. Less than ethical elected officials will be cutting quid pro quo deals with retailers and service providers. Manufacturers and other commercial entities will be working under the table with legislators to get them to push through legislation that is favorable to their industries. It is simply a design for disaster.

And what of the legal angle of all of this? Is this not a clear case of appropriation? Weatherproof clearly used Obama’s image for commercial gain, without getting a release to do so from the President. PETA used Michelle Obama to promote its cause, never seeking her permission. There are privacy laws in place in this country to protect high profile citizens from this exact thing.

Appropriation is clearly defined: Use of a person's name, likeness or identity for trade or advertising purposes without consent. Hell, Bette Midler sued Ford Motor Company for appropriation one time, when the car company hired a singer for one of its commercials, to sing a Midler song imitating Bette’s voice. She won. This is a tough law: Nearly a half century after Marilyn Monroe died, if you want to use her image to promote a product in 2010, you have to get the approval of her estate. Otherwise, you can be sued for appropriation.

The law is tried and true, and the fact that a retailer and an animal rights organization are thumbing their noses at it is a societal travesty. What next? Are attorneys going to decide they’re not well for the attorney/client privilege laws and just tell TMZ exactly what their high profile clients have to say about their cases? Are plastic surgeons going to dish to Perez Hilton about what their movie star clients had done to their faces? Where do we draw the line on who can use whom for commercial or social gain, while completely disregarding tradition, personal privacy, or even law? The Obamas are not Jon and Kate. The level of decorum afforded the President’s family is necessary in a civil society. The image of the U.S. has been roundly diminished worldwide – we just don’t need the President selling jackets on a billboard that sits on top of a Red Lobster. We just don’t.

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