Woody Allen billboard

American Apparel, the increasingly omnipresent clothing company based out of Los Angeles, can’t seem to keep itself out of the courthouse. Its newest legal challenge is a lawsuit filed by legendary filmmaker Woody Allen, who is claiming that American Apparel used his image on billboards and in Internet advertising without his consent. The image of Allen is lifted from a scene in one of Allen’s most successful films, Annie Hall, in which Allen is dressed up as a rabbi. Allen, who does not endorse commercial products or services in the United States, is seeking more than $10 million in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages.

Allen’s lawsuit against American Apparel is of a different variety than the more notorious lawsuits that American Apparel has had to deal with in the past. Most notably, Dov Charney, American Apparel’s unorthodox founder (no pun intended), has had to face a number of sexual harassment suits involving female employees of the company. A Business Week article from 2005 summarized some of the claims this way:

One [employee] claims he invited her to masturbate with him and that he ran business meetings at his Los Angeles home wearing close to nothing. Another says he asked her to hire young women with whom he could have sex, Asians preferred. All describe him using foul language in their presence, much of it demeaning to women.

So what’s the connection between the Allen lawsuit and the sexual harassment lawsuits that have garnered so much attention in the past? One thing is for sure—American Apparel knows how to squeeze as much media attention as possible out of many of the lawsuits that are filed against it. (For a sampling of articles and blog entries detailing the sexual harassment suits filed against Charney, click here, here, and here; for some perspectives on the Allen lawsuit, click here, here, and here.) In this regard, lawsuits filed against American Apparel are a major source of publicity for the company, and American Apparel is certainly pushing the “all publicity is good publicity” maxim to the extreme. Given the recent successes of the company, it’s hard to argue that the strategy isn’t working.

Most companies won’t be able to work the lawsuits-as-publicity doctrine as well as American Apparel has—but the lawsuits against American Apparel should give other companies who can follow their lead something to think about.

— Nick Lynton

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