By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; C01
It's impossible to pinpoint precisely when it occurred, but somewhere around the time topless beach photographs of Barack Obama began making the rounds on the Internet, it was clear that the basketball-playing, body-surfing president-elect was going to be a celebrity commander in chief. And when Michelle Obama became only the second first lady to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine -- and one whose cover stardom was linked to style rather than a presidential impeachment -- that was all the evidence necessary to know the new first lady was going to be a headliner to rival her husband.
The Obamas -- either together or separately -- have appeared on a broad range of magazine covers, from Vibe to Glamour to Men's Health. And while the stories have ostensibly been linked to specific initiatives or discussions about the changing nature of power, no small part of the allure has been the sort of personal magnetism that connects with consumers as they bide their time in checkout lanes.
"It's hard not to look at her and feel good," says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). "She has her own sense of style. She wears clothes well."
It was only a matter of time before admiration turned into appropriation.
Michelle Obama has become an unwilling pitchwoman on PETA's "Fur-Free and Fabulous!" posters in the Dupont Circle and Friendship Heights Metro stations. And the president is an accidental salesman of Weatherproof coats on a billboard that rises several stories over New York's Times Square.
In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it seems almost pointless to complain -- although the White House most definitely has. Companies spew a steady stream of updates about what the famous are wearing and eating, where they're going and how they got there. Do average folks take any of that as an actual endorsement? Or just part of the nattering infotainment that fills our days?
"Ordinarily, courts would presume that the appearance of a celebrity in an ad naturally implies that the celebrity is endorsing the advertiser's product or service. After all, when Halle Berry appears in a makeup ad, she's usually just wearing the makeup, and that's ad enough in itself," says Georgetown law professor Rebecca Tushnet in an e-mail. "Politicians occasionally do oppose commercial uses of their images. Ever since becoming governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has threatened companies for using his image for commercial gain. But it's important to note the difference between 'threatening' and 'winning a case in court.' "
Schwarzenegger sued a toy manufacturer for creating bobblehead dolls in his image. The big-headed tchotchke, called the Governator, was dressed in a suit and carried an imposing gun. Schwarzenegger eventually settled with the company. The bobblehead, however, survived -- albeit without its weapon.
"The courts simply haven't addressed what happens when a public figure like Obama . . . appears in an ad," Tushnet says. "Maybe that presumption of endorsement isn't justified." After all, just because the country knew that Obama wore a Hart Schaffner Marx suit at the inauguration, did we assume that he was endorsing the brand? In a culture so accustomed to gorging on every meaningless detail of the lives of the famous, there's no putting the bobblehead back in the box. But there also might be no need.Part of a foursome
The PETA posters, which went up just before New Year's Day, incorporate the first lady's official White House portrait in which she wears a sleeveless black sheath and a double strand of pearls. She is part of a foursome of famous women that includes Oprah Winfrey, Carrie Underwood and Tyra Banks.
The posters have caused a kerfuffle because while the East Wing confirms the first lady does not wear fur, she did not give PETA permission to use her image to promote its anti-fur stance.
"We didn't expect them to fund it or endorse it," Newkirk says. But "she is in the public domain. . . . This is reporting a statement of fact: She doesn't wear fur. And our opinion: We think that's fabulous."
The other women on the posters weren't contacted, either, but all have a prior connection to PETA. Banks posed in an ad; Winfrey was the organization's 2008 person of the year; Underwood was voted sexiest vegetarian.
Obama has the distinction of being the first American political figure of her stature featured in a PETA campaign. Years ago, the animal rights organization used pictures of Princess Diana without her permission. And it now has Sarah Brown, wife of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in its sights because she refuses to eat veal or foie gras, as well as French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who publicly denounced fur in a letter to PETA.
The first lady's unauthorized campaign is restrained compared with the president's, which has the leader of the free world looking pensive on a billboard positioned above a giant Red Lobster restaurant. He stars in the new sales campaign from Weatherproof, makers of outdoorwear for men and woman, which has hired actress Kristin Davis, weatherman Al Roker and a pampered Boston terrier in previous ads.
Obama happened to be wearing one of the company's jackets when he toured the Great Wall of China last fall. While reading the Wall Street Journal, Weatherproof President Freddie Stollmack spotted a photograph of the president in the coat. He bought the rights to use the original Associated Press image, in which the president looks a bit like a gentleman lumberjack awaiting his Land Rover, and enlarged it into a mammoth billboard with the tagline: "A Leader in Style."Jacket selling well
Stollmack says he hasn't yet spoken to anyone from the White House, although he has been contacted. Multiple times, he says. It's a phone tag situation. Honest. And, of course, there has been an endless string of media interviews. "It's turning into a dust storm. We never anticipated this kind of press coverage."
"In terms of PR, we're kind of neophytes," Stollmack says, setting the standard for understatement for many years to come. The jacket Obama is wearing, by the way, is called the Ultra-Tech, comes with a removable hood, sells for about $200-$225 and is now the bestseller in the line.
While Stollmack has no numbers to quantify the success of the billboard, "my intuition tells me there's been a tremendous elevation of brand awareness."
The White House issued a statement that sounds a bit like a parent expressing disappointment in a wayward child. It had the effect of communicating a message without attracting a lot of attention: "The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the President and First Family's name and likeness for advertising purposes." The White House had a similarly chiding reaction in August when the Obama daughters were referenced on posters in Metro's Union Station. "President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I?" asked a little girl on posters sponsored by a group advocating more nutritious noontime options.
As was the case over the summer, the White House wants the current ads taken down. "We got a call from the White House counsel's office," Newkirk says. "We said to them, we're not selling a coat, only an idea that glamorous beautiful women who you look up to don't wear fur. . . . We're honoring her. Lawyers are lawyers, but PETA is honoring her fashion sense." So there.
"PETA is an advocacy organization and can claim to be making a political statement," Tushnet says. "Political speech, even in the form of an ad, gets greater protection under the First Amendment than standard ads."
If Stollmack has to take his Weatherproof ad down, he's thinking he might replace it with one featuring Al Roker. Or better yet, he might add a women's version of the president's jacket to his line. Then maybe he could get a photograph of the first lady up on a billboard. "But then I'd probably have to fight with PETA."