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Facebook’s “Expanded Premium Ads” bring hidden Right of Publicity issues

November 17, 2011 No Comments »
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I have little doubt that Facebook’s new “Expanded Premium Ad,” as discussed by Facebook’s David Fischer at AdWeek a few weeks ago, has been vetted and tested from almost every technological and business angle conceivable.  I have to wonder, though, if anyone has considered the Right of Publicity violations which may be inherent in their anticipated advertising scheme.

The idea, as described by David Fischer at Advertising Week in October, is fairly simple and “doesn”t look that interesting” as Fischer stated in his presentation.  Basically, when a Facebook user “likes” a company or product on Facebook, Facebook will insert a line of text into an advertisement on the side of the screen stating “[Your Friend”s Name] likes [this product, movie, company, etc.],” with an image of your friend next to the text in the advertisement.

Downplaying how “interesting” it is may be as clever as the advertising itself.  We all know that traditional advertising is often overlooked, ignored, and tuned-out by consumers.  Part of the appeal in Facebook”s more discrete advertising mechanism, then, is that it doesn”t quite look like typical advertising, as Fischer”s comments imply.  Even more importantly, as Forbes” Robert Hof reports in his recent Forbes.com article, “People are twice as likely to remember an ad if their friend is in it, according to the Nielsen Co., and they tend to click on it or share it with friends.”  Here is a link to Robert Hof”s Forbes.com article in which he examines the business considerations of Facebook”s advertising ambitions:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthof/2011/11/16/facebooks-new-advertising-model-you/

Sounds like an effective method of target advertising, with your friends” image and a statement that he or she likes the advertised company, right?  A resounding endorsement from a trusted source!

What appears to be overlooked in all of this are the Right of Publicity implications.  In typical Right of Publicity analysis, if a person”s name, image or likeness is used without permission in a commercial manner such as advertising, then an infringement probably has occurred.  Furthermore, by communicating that “[your friend”s name] likes this company,” potential false endorsement overtones may also emerge.

Facebook has flirted with this advertising model before.  I recall a vigorous discussion in my Right of Publicity class at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis a few years ago discussing a similar Facebook advertising plan, though my recollection is that Facebook aborted the plan very quickly.  At the time, I thought it might have been because of the very issues touched upon here.  Apparently not since the plans seem to be reemerging.  I”m not sure there”s much difference, at least legally speaking, between the prior iteration and the one that is being contemplated now by Facebook.

Facebook might be relying on their existing user agreement, or may be intending to roll out a new user agreement which most people admit to not reading, in order to secure what Facebook might describe as “permission.”  I”m not so sure that would be enforceable, though, as a basis to purposefully and proactively utilize a person”s Right of Publicity in conjunction with third-party companies.

Right of Publicity agreements to use a person in a commercial manner such as advertising typically involve specific contractual terms governing the use.  I question whether a unilateral, non-negotiated, mandatory click-through agreement can substitute for a license to commercialize a person”s Right of Publicity.

Facebook could be starting a Right of Publicity firestorm.  In light of Facebook”s “Expanded Premium Ad” scheme, I suppose a Facebook user would be well-advised not to “Like” anything on Facebook unless you”re okay with that one unassuming click constituting a Right of Publicity and endorsement agreement for Facebook and that company to use your name, image and likeness in advertising any way that it sees fit.

If you happen to be a famous athlete, actor or actress, musician using Facebook, the perils only increase.  Consider just one scenario that comes to mind:  imagine if a musician, Johnny Rockstar, under contract for the endorsement of a specific guitar manufacturer (company A), casually “likes” a company that makes all kinds of other gear (company B), but also happens to sell a competing line of guitars.  Is that musician in breach of contract for “liking” a company that makes a guitar string or other accessory he likes, once Facebook launches its “Expanded Premium Ad” and runs advertisements with his picture next to his declaration that “Johnny Rockstar likes Company B?”  Think it couldn”t happen?

But one doesn”t have to be famous for this new Facebook “Expanded Premium Ad” to implicate the average Facebook user”s Right of Publicity.  The prevailing view, barring other factors, is that every person possesses a Right of Publicity.  The reality is that a private citizen usually doesn”t extract much value from his or her Right of Publicity because companies and advertisers generally only seek out, and pay for, associations with widely-recognized personalities (i.e., celebrities, athletes, etc.).  This new Facebook advertising scheme turns that dynamic on its head, because now basically every Facebook user will be sought out and included into advertising campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how this issue develops.


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