Bullock, DeGeneres Fight ‘Celebrity Endorsement Theft Industry’

Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP

Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP

Sandra Bullock and Ellen DeGeneres have teamed up to combat fake endorsements in a new California state court action.

The two A-list celebrities, whose names and images have been repeatedly used in fake endorsements for various beauty and anti-aging products, have filed an action against 100 unnamed defendants in an attempt “to expose the Celebrity Endorsement Theft Industry, which preys upon unsuspecting consumers, and exploits the names, images, likenesses and personas of well-known celebrities who have not authorized or been compensated for such use,” according to the complaint.

Both women are instantly recognizable by consumers around the world, and each exercises careful consideration prior to permitting the commercial use of her name, image, likeness or persona, which have “substantial” commercial value.

While the vast majority of affiliate marketers act responsibly, the $6.8 billion industry has “a dark side” where unscrupulous marketers “hijack and subvert” features of the affiliate marketing industry to use the names and likenesses of celebrities without permission or the payment of any license fees.

A typical example features an image of Bullock taken during an appearance on DeGeneres’ television talk show, promoting an upcoming movie. The real image is then doctored into an endorsement on a pseudo-news website with the addition of a question such as “Sandra Bullock Leaving Hollywood to Focus on Lifestyle Brand?”

The online advertisement then touts whatever beauty product (from anti-aging serum to face cream) is being promoted by the defendants, according to the complaint, accompanied by a link to a site selling the purported celebrity products (Bullock has never had a skin care line).

The ads often contain fake testimonials and endorsements from other celebrities as well, the plaintiffs said. Several ads feature the statement: “I refuse to wear a lot of makeup and thanks to Alessa Serum I don’t need to. My skin has never looked better and it looks younger than it did 10 years ago. I love waking up knowing I don’t need to bother trying to cover up my skin,” attributed to DeGeneres.

But DeGeneres did not make the statement, has never used the product being sold, and did not authorize any person or entity to say otherwise, the plaintiffs said.

The complaint details several other similar examples of false statements and fake endorsements from Bullock, DeGeneres and other celebrities.

Asserting violation of both plaintiffs’ common-law right of publicity as well as California’s Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law, the lawsuit seeks compensatory damages, disgorgement, punitive and exemplary damages, and an injunction halting the defendants from using the names, images and likenesses of the plaintiffs without permission.

To read the complaint in Bullock v. Doe, click here.

Why it matters: In their complaint, Bullock and DeGeneres explained that they have spent years trying to stop the illegal activity but have been unsuccessful due to “the very nature of the opaque and incestuous Celebrity Endorsement Theft Industry”—where companies frequently change names, “merge in and out of entities formed in states that allow for secrecy and operate websites that pop up and disappear overnight.” Bullock, DeGeneres and other celebrities are not alone in being plagued by fake endorsements. Legitimate companies are also facing online scams where their brand names are often used together with fake celebrity endorsements and fake news to sell questionable products. It will be interesting to see whether this new action from Bullock and DeGeneres yields information that can be helpful to brands and celebrities alike in stemming the mushrooming growth of the fake endorsements industry.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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