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When Moses lost the extra five commandments, I am certain one of them stated Thou Shalt Not Mess with Oprah. It’s too bad, because forty companies are about to wish they had heeded that advice.
On April 19, Oprah Winfrey, through her corporate entity, Harpo, Inc., filed trademark infringement suits against forty companies for Internet marketers of dietary supplements. Oprah’s complaint alleges the companies took a quote out of context to deceive the public into thinking Oprah endorses the product.
Last year Oprah’s friend, Dr. Mehmet Oz, came onto The Oprah Winfrey Show and talked about the anti-aging effects of the acai berry. Acai berry supplement producers, according to a Harpo attorney, began selling their products claiming Oprah and Dr. Oz sponsored them.
While it was a risky gambit, the potential payoff was huge, because all it takes to make a product sell is an Oprah endorsement. In fact, earlier this year CNBC ran a special called The Oprah Effect detailing the value of an Oprah endorsement.
This begs a question that, at the risk of the JETLaw Blog suffering Oprah’s wrath, must be asked: why would anyone care about Oprah’s opinion regarding a dietary supplement? (If tomorrow I disappear, never to be seen or heard from again, it was Oprah.) I get it, millions of people hang on to her every word. But what would make Oprah qualified to give health advice? And while her friend, Dr. Oz, is allegedly an M.D., media doctors like him and Dr. Phil seem to be spokespeople and personalities first and true experts in their fields second.
Celebrity endorsements are, frankly, of a dubious value to products. Does it prove anything that former professional athletes lost weight using Nutrisystem? Who would choose Champion Window because TV Host Samantha Brown (my secret crush) prefers it? Is anyone buying Cottonelle toilet paper because Zach Braff, of Scrubs fame, voices the puppy in the commercial? Buying a product just because a celebrity, who has no particular expertise in the area, endorses it is questionable consumer behavior.
In conclusion, a message to all businesses: If you are going to use a quote from a celebrity to sell your product, check with that person first. If you don’t, she may sue you. And if it’s Oprah, the most powerful woman in entertainment, expect repercussions. Severe ones. Consider yourself warned.
-- Joe Cesta
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