Print Politics

Obama Billboard Raises Issue of Advertising Ethics

Should political figures be fashion models?

We don't do a lot of controversial printing at Hotcards. Most of our customers, like the majority of print advertisers, don't go in for attaching their names to something scandalous. Edgy? Sure. But scandalous? Rarely.

Academically speaking, however, it's always interesting to consider the moral and ethical implications of a print design. This week, the whole country is talking about the huge Barack Obama billboard in Times Square. A political campaign ad? Nope! It's an ad for Weatherproof Garment Company, featuring a huge image of Obama in a Weatherproof jacket, next to the slogan, "A Leader in Style."

The image, depicting Obama in front of the Great Wall of China, was bought from the Associated Press by Weatherproof, who were supposed to get the appropriate permissions to use the image, but apparently didn't think to check in with the Obama administration. The print ad hadn't been up a day before the White House was asking that it be taken down.

This is a tricky situation. While images of politicians and other celebrities are technically free to use for purposes of artistic expression and news (as long as the advertiser owns the image, of course!), individuals do have the right to control how their image is used commercially. And while Weatherproof claims that the billboard is not an ad in the traditional sense of the word (I guess they think it's more of a homage), the White House is not having any part in it.

Interestingly, while the ad made it to Times Square, it was rejected by multiple print publications. This may be the first time in history that a current President and his wife have had such large commercial appeal as fashion icons, but most print advertisers are still leery of this type of image use.

Weatherproof is planning on taking the ad down within the week, but their stance still remains, "what's the problem?" After all, in the picture, Obama is sporting their label, and don't the brands and products chosen by the first family inherently earn advertising clout? From Weatherproof's perspective, the ad is simply saying, "hey, check it out! The President wears our jackets!"

Of course, the alternative perspective is that the ad really does look like Obama was paid to model the jacket, and that's not the kind of thing that a President should do. Right? Or are we immersed in such a media-rich culture that this type of advertising is inevitable? Recently, PETA

used Michelle Obama in an anti-fur ad without her permission or endorsement, and they have not intention of pulling the campaign.


Are we at a point where politicians have to start choosing the brands they endorse, before the brands are chosen for them? Or is the onus on the advertiser to consider the President an ethical no-fly zone?

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