"Public image laws" in the U.S. belie an image-obsessed cultural sensibility.
After receiving calls from her neighbors, a woman found that her daughter’s picture had been used in an ad for a local ice cream store, without the daughter’s or the mother’s consent. Her daughter had simply “liked” the ice cream store on Facebook. The woman was outraged and embarrassed. People across the country whose photographs had been similarly exploited under Facebook’s Sponsored Stories advertising program sued Facebook.
In the past hundred years, in increasing numbers, Americans have turned to the law to help them defend and control their public images.
In 1948, the Saturday Evening Post ran a critique of cabdrivers in Washington, D.C., that accused them of cheating their customers. A photograph appeared with the article that depicted a woman cabdriver, Muriel Peay, talking to the article’s author on the street. The caption did not name her, and the article did not refer to her. Although the woman had consented to be photographed, she did not know that the picture would be used in an article on cheating cabbies. She was humiliated, and she sued the magazine.
In the early 1940s, Zelma Cason, who was the inspiration for a character in a book by a famous writer, sued the author. The portrayal of Cason was highly complimentary, although in one part of the book the author described her as an “ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary” and noted that she used profanity. Cason was upset, and she sought damages of one hundred thousand dollars.
Angry and insulted, these people could have done any number of things. On seeing her picture in the Saturday Evening Post, Muriel Peay could have gone home and cried. Perhaps she did. The unwilling subjects of the Sponsored Stories program could have boycotted Facebook—perhaps they did, too. But these individuals also chose to sue. In the past hundred years, in increasing numbers, Americans have turned to the law to help them defend and control their public images. The twentieth century saw the creation of a law of public image, and the phenomenon of personal image litigation.