Super Bowl advertising is fertile ground for Right of Publicity licensing. My company more often than not will have a campaign using one of my clients. Inevitably, then, there could also be instances of advertising which wanders into the realm of a Right of Publicity infringement.
Without saying I believe it is or is not an infringement, or whether it was authorized or not, there is no denying who the Cetaphil advertisement of a father and daughter bonding over friendship bracelets and football jerseys was connecting to the surge of attention brought by Taylor Swift dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the 2023 season. My Right of Publicity class will use this spot for discussion of Right of Publicity analysis.
In the Cetaphil advertising spot, no reference to the Super Bowl or the Kansas City Chiefs is made directly; however, several football jerseys are depicted, one in a red-based color, another in an away-uniform white-based color. They are otherwise unmarked jerseys, but at least arguably are capable of being viewed as Kansas City Chiefs jerseys. The timing of the spot occurs during the “big game,” and perhaps the viewer is expected to arrive with a built-in familiarity of one of the teams in the game and to Taylor Swift and her circumstantial but heavily-publicized connection to the Kansas City Chiefs.
So with respect to Taylor Swift and the Right of Publicity, would it be actionable? Throughout the spot, the father and daughter seem not to be connected as each looks at their phones or have seemingly disparate interests. The numbers on the jerseys in the spot are 89 and 13, both of which need no explanation to Swifties or the Taylor Swift fanbase, as those numbers are immediately recognizable as connected to Swift (arguably even more so when used together). Numerous close-ups of friendship bracelets culminate in both the father and daughter wearing both friendship bracelets, and both wearing football jerseys in the Kansas City Chiefs colors, numbered 89 and 13. The father-daughter disconnect is remedied as the father wears friendship bracelets like his daughter, the daughter wears a jersey like her father, and they both sit down in front of the television presumably to watch the “game.”
Do these references require a built-in awareness of the storylines dominating the 2023 season and the 2024 Super Bowl? To be clear, no NFL or Kansas City Chiefs trademarks are directly depicted, nor is Taylor Swift named or directly portrayed. Do these details render the spot clear of violations? Again, I am not giving an assessment, just raising the question, and from one of the following links, I am not the first to ask the question.
Here is one link to the spot, which posting is captioned “Taylor Swift Cetaphil commercial:” Cetaphil 2024 Super Bowl commercial
Here is a link to one write up that references the dynamics in play, and also considers whether fair use would provide safe harbor. Cetaphil’s Marketing Tactics balance Taylor Swift Imagery and IP Rights
The standard for infringement is identifiability, perhaps qualified by the association being unequivocal (“unequivocal identifiability”). It is probably safe to say that Taylor Swift, and only Taylor Swift, is unequivocally identifiable from the advertisement. Are the interests of fair use served by an advertisement like this being deemed permissible? To be clear, it has not been “deemed permissible” nor to my knowledge has any action been taken against it. It may remain theoretical, but context matters in Right of Publicity analysis. Given the attention on the Travis Kelce-Taylor Swift relationship throughout the 2023 NFL season, culminating in the Kansas City Chiefs reaching Super Bowl LVIII, and Taylor Swift being shown several times in any game she attended, then the context may dictate that further identification of Taylor Swift, the Kansas City Chiefs, or the Super Bowl were unnecessary because the context of the use removed any uncertainty. Should it have been licensed? Should it be fair use?
Louisiana has passed a Right of Publicity statute providing, among other things, 50 years of postmortem recognition. The statutute is designated “the Allen Toussaint Legacy Act” after the notable musician who died in 2015. Here is a link to the statute: Louisiana Right of Publicity statute
Muhammad Ali’s representatives have filed a $30 million lawsuit on behalf of Muhammad Ali Enterprises (MAE) against Fox Broadcasting Company. The suit centers around a three minute promotional ad for Super Bowl LI which ran before the Super Bowl in 2017. The spot includes various other personalities, past and present, in addition to Ali who is the focal point.
Here is a link to the complaint: