July 16, 2018

White v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc.

To promote the reliability of its consumer electronics, Samsung ran a series of ads in 1988 each depicting a 20-year prediction and a Samsung product: Shock TV host Morton Downey Jr. with the caption “Presidential candidate. 2008 A.D.” to sell TVs. A ribeye steak with the caption “Revealed to be health food. 2010 A.D.” to sell microwaves. And a robot hostess with the caption “Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D.” to sell VCRs.

Morton Downey Jr. ad

While the ad promoting Samsung TVs used Downey Jr. himself, the VCR ad used a robot avatar in an evening gown. Unlike other celebrities featured in the ad campaign, Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White didn’t consent to the ads nor was she paid. She sued Samsung for violation of right to privacy, violation of right of publicity, and trademark infringement.

Vanna White ad

The Court held that White’s right to privacy wasn’t violated because the robot avatar wasn’t a true likeness—it was only an imitation. Samsung “used a robot with mechanical features, and not, for example, a mannequin molded to White’s precise features.” If Samsung had instead created a virtual influencer or digital celebrity that looked just like White, then the ruling may have come down differently.

The Court did however rule in favor of White’s claims of common law right of publicity and trademark infringement, and White was awarded $403,000 in damages.

In an interview with the New York Post, White said:

“I can absolutely be replaced by a computer any day, any moment, but fortunately they haven’t, so … [Pat and I] are a team. I think a lot of people watch the show to see what I’m wearing, with me just turning the letters. Women write to me—’Where can I get that dress?’ I think it all works, all the moving pieces.”

With over 6,000 episodes aired, Wheel of Fortune is the longest-running syndicated game show in the US. White has renewed her contract through the 2019–2020 season.

2018 Brian Rose