If there’s one thing that we should know about the internet by now, it’s that deleting something isn’t always enough to make it go away – especially when you’ve either interested or offended a lot of people. Last week, Belvedere Vodka ran a still image on its Facebook page that featured a guy with a creeper smile on his face clutching a mortified-looking woman, with the text: “unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” With no other context, the image seemed to suggest a playful glibness toward sexual assault. Belvedere pulled the image from Facebook and started issuing apologies and RAINN donations just hours after being inundated with angry comments, but the image isn’t going away – and now it’s coming under fire for an entirely different reason. Alicyn Packard, the very same mortified-looking woman, is slapping the vodka brand back with a lawsuit.
When the whole fiasco first went down, we noted the less obvious issue that the image had been ripped off wholesale from an entirely unrelated sketch comedy clip. “Awkward Moments, #542, The Baby Picture” is published to a website sporting a bold copyright claim at the bottom – Belvedere’s social media team appropriating a screen cap of the video for commercial purposes would open up “a different problematic and copyright-involving issue altogether,” we supposed. Well, yes. According to reports, Packard is suing Belvedere Vodka for using the image without permission. There’s also the whole part about her face being at the center of such a controversial ad, a situation that’s a lot more uncomfortable than any baby picture:
"While Defendants have apologized to nearly everyone else, and admitted the offensiveness of the advertisement," says the lawsuit, "they have yet to apologize to the plaintiff, whose image she says they used without permission to sell vodka, and who has now been unwillingly made the face of the Belvedere advertising campaign that jokes about rape, and has been put front and center in the worldwide controversy created by Defendants."
The report indicates that Packard is suing under a California law that makes it illegal to use someone’s likeness for advertising purposes without their express permission, as well as extra damages for emotional distress. Chris Strickland, head of Strickly Viral Productions which hosted the video, has also issued a legal warning against Belvedere.
Just another reminder to be careful what image your company presents at all times. Social media is as viable and influential as any print or television ad, and that’s for better or for worse – mistakes made online tend to spread more quickly than anywhere else these days. As this particular case shows, the damages of a bad decision may be more complicated than you ever could have expected. So use your social media, but use it well.