White v. Samsung Electronics law case study

In the following essay I will comment on the famous communications case White v. Samsung Electronics America, 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992).

Samsung electronics company in the early 1990s would run a series of commercials about near future that would promote the Samsung products and make humorous predictions about the future. For instance, one advertising would show a raw steak with the caption “revealed to the health food. 2010 AD”. Another commercial would show Morton Downey and say “Presidential Candidate 2008 A.D”. these ads initially were created to show humorously that Samsung products will be present 20 years from now.

The prior Energizer court ruling proved that advertising parodies by using the 1st Amendment to the US constitution would be present in the country from that time on. Yet the case Vanna White v. Samsung would prove these things to be different.

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Everything started with the humorous magazine ads that would feature futuristic Samsung VCRs mocking current pop culture and hinting about the bright future for Samsung electronics company. As found at http://notabug.com/kozinski/whitedissent the problematic ad was the send-up of the famous “Wheel of Fortune” game show. The Samsung ad would portray a robot dressed up and acting exactly just like Vanna White, the show’s main hostess. Vanna White did not know anything about the ad created by Samsung and did not know much about the fact that her image will be used by Samsung even as a part of parody. Vanna White believed that the image is used unfairly and thus sued Samsung on the grounds that the Samsung ad would give false impression that Vanna White would endorse Samsung’s VCRs, as well as the Samsung would unlawfully appropriate the likeness of Vanna White and violate White’s common law rights to publicity.

The judge had to consider the following issues to rule on this case:

  • if the commercial was meant to entertain or to generate profits.
  • if the commercial was meant to steal identity of Vanna White.

The defense that Samsung lawyers used in court was the statement that “Vanna White” robot was a parody and therefore was an expression protected by the US Constitution (First Amendment). The majority of the court indeed agreed that the Wheel of Fortune advertising was a mockery, yet they also agreed that such advertising would certainly mislead customers into believing that Vanna White endorsed Samsung products, namely the advertised VCRs. Since there appeared that Vanna White endorsed Samsung products although in a spoof manner, the fact that it was a parody was no defense for Samsung. As judge Goodwin noted, the difference between a parody and a knock-off is the difference between fun and profit for Samsung electronics.

Indeed the plaintiff did everything possible and the best idea would be to use the 1st amendment to the US constitution and the precedent cases Hustler Magazine v. Falwell and L.L.Bean v. Drake Publications.

One should not forget that as seen online at http://www.law.uconn.edu/homes/swilf/ip/cases/white.htm judge Alarcon, would disagree and in his dissent noted that in fact Samsung’s advertising was not different from the case Hustler Magazine v. Falwell and L.L.Bean v. Drake Publications. These cases illustrated parodies similar to those created by Samsung. Still, the judges would consider that these commercials were made purely for fun rather than for commercial purpose of selling soft-core porn magazines. Alarcon stated that no reasonable person on earth could confuse the robot with Vanna White or believe that it was her that tried to endorse Samsung product.

From the White v. Samsung Electronics America, 971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992) one learns that advertising parody’s status in the courts is partially at the mercy of individual judges’ opinion and legal interpretations, which is certainly different from many other areas of current communications law.

The outcome of the case was the court’s decision to find Samsung guilty. According to http://www.coolcopyright.com/cases/chp9/whitesamsung.htm Vanna White would be rewarded $403,000 in damages. Samsung would reconsider its advertising policy and remove these advertisement from mass media.



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