TV Legends Revealed | Does Vanna Have Trademark on Letter-Turning?
TV URBAN LEGEND: Did Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White win a lawsuit over a commercial featuring a robot with a blond wig turning letters?
One of the most interesting “new” legal rights to develop over the past 30 years or so has been the California common law to publicity (also known as “personality rights”). California passed a law in 1985 known as the Celebrity Rights Act, which gives celebrities control over the use of their likeness, voice and signature during their life, with control then granted to their estate for 70 years following the celebrity’s death. That statute is why Fred Astaire’s estate can follow the strange stipulation in his will that he never be depicted in a film (you can read more about that odd decision in this old Legends Revealed here). However, while California has specifically codified this law, courts have also granted a certain amount of protection beyond that law to celebrities and their publicity rights. This protection has gotten more and more protective over the past 30 years. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this right came in 1988, when Wheel of Fortune‘s Vanna White sued Samsung Electronics over an ad depicting a robot in a blond wig turning letters … and essentially won!
Read on to see how it all went down …
Debuting as part of NBC’s daytime lineup in 1975, Wheel of Fortune features contestants essentially playing Hangman and spinning a large wheel to determine how much money they would receive for correctly guessing a consonant from a large word puzzle placed before them. A female hostess would reveal the correctly guessed letters. In 1980, original host Chuck Woolery left the game show and was replaced by Pat Sajak. Two years later, original hostess Susan Stafford left and was replaced by a few aspiring fill-in hostesses. In December 1982, one of those hostesses, Vanna White, won the job. White’s timing was impeccable, as in 1983 the show was picked up for syndication. From 1983 to 1991, Wheel of Fortune aired in the daytime on NBC and then at nighttime on syndication (where any local network could purchase the rights). The show exploded in popularity, and to this very day, it remains the most popular original program in syndication (beat only by syndicated reruns of The Big Bang Theory). Sajak and White remain the hosts.
In 1988, Samsung Electronics began a series of print advertisements created by David Deutsch Associates that were set in the future, where outlandish things would take place but Samsung would still be there. One of the ads suggested that in 2010, steak would be considered a “health food,” but Samsung microwaves would still be there to heat up the meat. In 2008, controversial talk-show host Morton Downey Jr. would be a presidential candidate, and Samsung TVs would still be around for you to view his speeches. Finally, one ad showed a robot wearing a blonde wig and a dress turning a letter on a game board. The ad noted that in 2012, this would be the longest-running game show and you would still be using a Samsung VCR to record it. White sued over the ads, and originally, the California district court ruled against her and threw the case out. However, in 1992, after White appealed the lower court’s ruling, the Ninth Circuit reversed the original decision on two of the three grounds White used.
White sued based on the aforementioned Celebrity Rights Act, but also based on the California common law to publicity (personality rights) and a trademark violation! The appeals court agreed that the suit did not fit the parameters of the Celebrity Rights Act, as the ads had not depicted her likeness, her voice or her signature. However, on the matter of her personality rights, they determined that White had an actionable claim. The judges ruled that it was “not important how the defendant has appropriated the plaintiff’s identity, but whether the defendant has done so,” and in this instance, they felt Samsung had, indeed, appropriated White’s identity, noting, “Advertisers use celebrities to promote their products. The more popular the celebrity, the greater the number of people who recognize her, and the greater the visibility for the product. The identities of the most popular celebrities are not only the most attractive for advertisers, but also the easiest to evoke without resorting to obvious means such as name, likeness, or voice.” They also found that even the defendants themselves referred to the ads as “the Vanna White ad.” Essentially, Samsung was using everyone’s familiarity with Vanna White to sell its product, only it was neither compensating Vanna White to do so nor did it ask for White’s permission to do so. Downey Jr., for instance, was compensated for appearing in his ad. As the court wrote:
Viewed separately, the individual aspects of the advertisement in the present case say little. Viewed together, they leave little doubt about the celebrity the ad is meant to depict. The female-shaped robot is wearing a long gown, blond wig, and large jewelry. Vanna White dresses exactly like this at times, but so do many other women. The robot is in the process of turning a block letter on a game-board. Vanna White dresses like this while turning letters on a game-board but perhaps similarly attired Scrabble-playing women do this as well. The robot is standing on what looks to be the Wheel of Fortune game show set. Vanna White dresses like this, turns letters, and does this on the Wheel of Fortune game show. She is the only one.
Similarly, Ninth Circuit determined that White could at least make a legitimate claim the ads would confuse consumers into believing that White was endorsing Samsung products:
Looking at the series of advertisements as a whole, a jury could reasonably conclude that beneath the surface humor of the series lay an intent to persuade consumers that celebrity Vanna White, like celebrity Downey, was endorsing Samsung products.
They, of course, noted the jury could disagree with White’s claims, as it could disagree with her claims on the matter of her above cited personality rights, but White at least had an actionable case that the court would allow get to a jury to allow the jury to decide. Samsung tried to get the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case the following year (under a different panel of judges) but the claim was denied. That denial did lead to a famous dissent by Judge Alex Kozinski, where he colorfully ripped into the case. Samsung eventually settled with White in 1993 after the United State Supreme Court denied hearing the case. White was paid more than $400,000.
The legend as…
STATUS: Basically True (except it is worth noting that the case never went to verdict, so she did not officially win, but she clearly won.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!