Bad Lawyer Billboards: Faking Vandalism for Publicity?Posted 02 Apr 2017 by John Phillips
I became aware of this when I saw this news story: http://wjtv.com/2015/09/04/law-office-billboard-vandalized-but-the-company-says-they-love-it/. I was skeptical, but seeing the Mississippi State University themed billboard ahead of football season intrigued me, as did the audacity of someone vandalizing not just the billboard of a lawyer, but a strident Florida Gator fan named John Morgan.
The story indicates the firm denied the responsibility for vandalism. As Lee Corso will soon say again, “not so fast.” It clearly got “earned media” for the firm. “Earned media” is when a story promotes a brand, cause or person and that promotion is “free” to them, as opposed to purchased time on air. It is what is “on the news,” as opposed to bought commercial time. Morgan & Morgan spends many millions of dollars on advertising.
The gig was up when I noticed it was more than an isolated occurrence. Later in the day, a Jacksonville, Florida photographer with the local paper, the Times-Union, “broke” a local story where a Morgan & Morgan billboard had been decorated with Jacksonville Jaguars themed graffiti:
I looked around further and found Orlando’s MLS themed billboard:
And this booze related one in Tampa:
Did Better Call Saul’s Saul Goodman do it first and better?
It was clearly an orchestrated marketing plan. It’s certainly interesting and moderately clever and enticed media to cover it- even if they acknowledged it was a Morgan & Morgan manufactured story. Earned media at it’s finest- the publicity stunt. It reminded me of the television show “Better Call Saul,” when the character “saves” someone who falls off of his very own billboard to get on the news:
But is it legal?
Copyright / Trademark Implications
Particularly with the use of the Mississippi State registered mark, Mississippi State University declares it “controls the use of its trademarks through a licensing program that encourages proper use that will reflect favorably on the University and will produce maximum revenue for its benefit.” Permission to “use the University name or trademarks for commercial purposes shall be granted by a nonexclusive license.”
The proper permissions may have been obtained. If not, it is technical violation of MSU’s rights. Given Morgan’s co-branding and the forced marriage between a personal injury law firm and a university, Morgan & Morgan is using MSU’s mark for a commercial use and they may cry foul. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a cease and desist served, although I’d be equally not surprised if they went along with it simply because it’s free advertisement.
Florida Rules of Professional Conduct
Three of these modified billboards are located in Florida. If the Florida Bar didn’t specifically approve these ads and the firm or their agents were responsible for their creation, the billboards may violate Florida’s Rules of Professional Conduct that bind all lawyers.
All billboards must be filed for review with the Florida Bar at its headquarters address at least 20 days before their first use, unless the content of the advertisements is limited to the presumptively valid content listed in Rule 4-7.16. This strays from that. See also Rules 4-7.19(a) and 4-7.20(a) for more detail. Again, this may be harmless advertising, but according to the strict letter of the law, this type of advertising must be registered and approved. The added #Forthepeople certainly is an intent to keep the firm’s brand in tact.
There also may be an issue if the billboards are determined to be confusing, deceptive or constitute some sort of endorsement or affiliation with what is depicted on it- if it doesn’t exist.
Denials and Banksy
Various reports and reporters claim Morgan & Morgan denied involvement. I am sure they will claim it’s like an April Fool’s Joke- in September.
And, of course, when it comes to celebrity graffiti, why not invoke Banksy’s name. Banksy is a pseudonymous British graffiti artist who is famous for his work. He’d assuredly have nothing to do with such dishonest commercial gimmickry.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired of lawyer ads. I am tired of firms spending millions of dollars putting themselves on buses, billboards, television, radio and everywhere else. Now, they are using publicity stunts to get on the news and “go viral.” It is what it is, but it is tiresome. There are a lot of little guys working hard to compete against these firms. We hope you choose who represents you based on more than an ad or gimmick.