Brand endorsements are serious business, particularly for sports stars, as former Brazil player Pelé has just reminded Samsung by slapping the company with a $30m (£20.8m) lawsuit. He says the South Korean group used his identity without permission in a full-page advert for ultra HD TVs, which appeared in the New York Times last October.
While the advert doesn’t mention Pelé by name, it does feature a large portrait photo of someone who ‘very closely resembles’ him, accompanied by a smaller picture of a football player doing what looks suspiciously like a ‘modified bicycle of scissors-kick, perfected and famously used by Pelé’, according to the complaint.
It’s a concern to Pelé of course, because endorsement rights are probably his most precious commodity right now. The 75-year-old is considered one of the all-time great footballers though he's had a chequered financial career.
Like many sportspeople, Pelé relies on endorsements these days for much of his income. According to Bloomberg, he earned a cool $25m from endorsements in 2014, the year Brazil hosted the World Cup. It’s likely to be a similar total for this year as Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympic Games.
‘The goal is to obtain fair compensation for the authorised use of Pelé’s identity and to prevent future unauthorised uses,’ Pelé’s attorney Frederick Sperling said.
If it loses then it will have been a silly error for Samsung to have made. Such a big company (even if it would like to be more like a start-up) should surely be able to secure a decent name to feature in its ads?You might save a few pennies not going after a famous face, but only until an eagle-eyed member of their team spots your offending ad.
It happens a lot though - Pelé’s attorney also represented basketball player Michael Jordan in a similar case last year. He helped win Jordan an $8.9m jury verdict against the former supermarket chain Dominick’s for unauthorised use of his identity in a Sports Illustrated advert. Though in that case, Jordan’s full name and jersey number were also used – about as blatant as it could be.
Just last month Tel Aviv-based Espresso Club got into hot water with Nestle after using a George Clooney lookalike in a cheeky riff on the actor's well-known Nespresso ads. The Swiss giant i seeking $50,000 in damages and wants Espresso Club to stop playing the ad - which so far it hasn't. But as long as brand endorsements carry such pulling power, the rich and famous will continue to play hardball.