Use of the Presidential Image

I took a friend to the doctor today where, as we waited, we saw a commercial for a mortgage refinance company on their waiting room tv. A part of the commercial was Obama’s speech on how he was going to fix the mortgage problem. I don’t think it’s seen this before with other Presidents. Does the finance company pay the federal government for using Obama’s image or can it be freely used?

He’s a public figure (indeed, the quintessential example of one), and as long as it’s not defamatory and doesn’t attribute views to him that he doesn’t hold (“The President endorses our new widget as ‘the best widget ever!’”), I don’t think he has any control over how his image is used, and is not entitled to payment for it.

Just in the past few months I’ve heard his voice used in radio ads for both a community college and a conservative public forum discussing his first hundred days. A Turkish bank also recently used pictures of Obama to lure in prospective depositors:

I think the reason it’s so jarring is that we haven’t in recent memory had a president popular enough that commercial enterprises think his image will draw more people than it’ll piss off.

Anyway, I have to disagree with Elendil’s Heir. Public figures do generally have a right of publicity which limits the ability of unrelated entities to appropriate their image for commercial use – if you’ve worked to make yourself famous, other people can’t just piggyback on your fame to sell their product. The classic case was when MLK’s family sued a company that was selling an unauthorized bust of him. Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Change, Inc. v. American Heritage Products, Inc., 250 Ga. 135 (1982).

There is a First Amendment exception that prevents a public figure from blocking the publication of newsworthy or satirical material, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the commercial discussed in the OP. Instead, it seems the company is just using the president’s image to imply (even if they are careful not to state) that their services are part of his economic plan. I think the White House probably could put a stop to this commercial if they felt it worth the effort. (Note that as Elendil mentioned, there are a ton of ads utilizing Obama or his message in various ways, so it’d likely be an overwhelming task to stop them all, and the guy does have a few other things on his plate right now.)

(An important thing to note is that the right of publicity is a creation of state law, so its existence and contours will vary from place to place.)

The OP reminds me – 10 or more years ago, local fast food chain Jerry’s Subs & Pizza had a series of radio ads utilizing some really good voice impersonators, including a couple starring then-president Clinton. To this day whenever I drive by a Jerry’s I hear Clinton’s enthusiastic “Show me the cheese!” in my head. (Dear god, make it stop.) The Clinton White House did go so far as to send Jerry’s a cease and desist letter, which the restaurant ignored for at least some amount of time. A couple minutes Googling did not reveal what happened after that.


White House Lawyers Look to Limit Commercial Use of President (Bloomberg).

That was 4 months ago and progress is unknown. To me, anyway.

There’s a local Kia dealer which is well known for incredibly annoying ads which has been running radio spots featuring an Obama soundalike who entreats the motoring public to buy a new Kia and help boost the economy… and the voice is remarkably similar.

I’ve been wondering if they’ll get in trouble for suggesting that the President is endorsing Kia widgets.

Cliffy, that case isn’t exactly analogous since it involves the sale of the public figure’s likeness itself, rather than the use of the likeness to sell something else.

True enough; the right is broader than the one case I mentioned.


In the case of a mortgage company, using the prez’s image might be a little more allowable. The government owns a majority share of some of those companies.:wink:

I seem to recall that Bill Clinton appeared on a TV monitor briefly in the film Contact. If I’m remembering correctly, Clinton’s people told the filmmakers they cant use it commercially without permission, but declined to force them to remove it

Assuming thats true, presidents probably have control over their own images as used commercially but probably do not feel it politically worth it to sue every company that uses it