Image Credit: Michael Rozman / Warner Bros.
Ellen DeGeneres and Sandra Bullock filed a lawsuit this week in Los Angeles Superior Court over false advertising and unauthorized use of their names and likenesses to endorse products.
Due to their uncertainty as to who is behind the fraud, DeGeneres and Bullock filed the suit against unnamed Defendants Does 1 through 100. According to the complaint, “[t]hese companies change names frequently, merge in and out of entities formed in states that allow for secrecy, operate websites that pop up and disappear overnight, and generally do everything possible to ‘stay one step ahead of the sheriff.'”
This lawsuit highlights the current issues with “celebrity endorsement theft.” DeGeneres and Bullock are asserting violations of their rights of publicity plus false advertising and unfair competition. They asked the court for an injunction and compensatory damages.
DeGeneres and Bullock claim companies target them in online scams that use their likeness to sell beauty and anti-aging products without their requisite permission. Often, companies set up fake news sites with real images of celebrities that have been doctored to become an endorsement. The complaint references an example of one such company using a photo of Bullock from NBC’s “Today” show, with the caption: “Sandra Bullock Talks About Her New Skin Care Line.” The pop-up contained a link to a site selling Bullock’s alleged products. Bullock has never had a skin care line. In the complaint, the celebrities list forty falsely-endorsed beauty products that they have “never heard of, used or endorsed.”
These online scams trick customers into signing up for undisclosed, recurring automatic payments by offering “trial offers” for the supposed celebrity-endorsed products. The goal of the suit at this stage is to initiate investigation into responsibility for the fraudulent marketing. Once DeGeneres and Bullock learn the identities of the perpetrators behind the fake ads, they will amend the suit to list these specific parties as the defendants.
The false celebrity-endorsement scheme is a major issue for celebrities in addition to the consumers tricked into buying these products. As the suit indicates, celebrities take issue with their names and likenesses being used to defraud consumers. Additionally, however, these false advertisements can prevent celebrities from receiving legitimate endorsement deals, which can be extremely lucrative. The frequency with which a celebrity is connected to false advertisements online could prevent companies from using that celebrity to endorse its products because the endorsement would hold less weight.
Hopefully, for the sake of consumers and celebrities alike, DeGeneres and Bullock are successful in their fight against fake celebrity endorsements. Stay tuned for future litigation updates.
Liz Costello, University at Buffalo School of Law, Class of 2020. Liz is the Treasurer of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society, an Articles Editor of the Buffalo Law Review, and an anticipated associate at Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC. Having grown up in Los Angeles with an entertainment attorney mother, Liz is especially interested in the legal issues surrounding music, film, television, and sports. Her favorite activities include going to local live music and sporting events.