Congratulating Michael Jordan in a Sports Illustrated Ad Earned a Business a Lawsuit from the Celebrity

When celebrities receive awards or reach professional milestones, businesses often run congratulatory advertisements that both salute the celebrity and promote their brand.  While those seem to be supporting the celebrity, celebrities have initiated legal action for misappropriation and unauthorized use of the public figure’s identity for commercial benefit or fundraising purposes.

Two strategies can minimize the risk of legal liability: (1) not mentioning the name of the celebrity or using his or her image; and (2) not expressly using the company’s slogans for products in the ad, instead, limiting the ad to an honorary salute without overt attempts to sell products or promote its brand (a direct sales message).

To commemorate Michael Jordan’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Chicago grocery chain Jewel-Osco ran a congratulatory ad in Sports Illustrated, which stated “Jewel-Osco salutes #23 on his many accomplishments as we honor a fellow Chicagoan who was ‘just around the corner’ for so many years.”  “Just around the corner” was the company’s slogan.

Unfortunately for Jewel, Jordan appealed, and the decision was reversed by the appeals court, which held that the combination of the Jewel-Osco logo, the tagline, and the conspicuous link to Jordan were enough to classify the ad as a form of image advertising, i.e., “commercial” speech.

The moral of the story is that businesses must tread carefully in these waters.  Any use of a celebrity’s name in promotions or social media can end a business on the wrong end of a publicity rights lawsuit.