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Are university mascots celebrities?

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TFB Seal Sun YellowA Bar committee put the bite, at least temporarily, on a law firm’s proposed ads that feature the University of Florida Gator mascot, finding the use violates Bar rules banning celebrity endorsements.

The Standing Committee on Advertising reached that conclusion in upholding a Bar staff opinion that held using images of “Albert” and “Alberta,” the Gator mascots of the University of Florida, were not allowed in four proposed lawyer ads.

The committee, at its June 9 meeting, also rejected two other endorsement-related ads. In one, a law firm ad featured a testimonial from a law enforcement officer. The second involved internet and email ads from a lawyer who wanted to pay social media real estate investing advisors with online followers to help him attract attendees for the lawyer’s online real estate investing webinar.

The mascot issue arose from UF beginning a “community partnership” program where various businesses and enterprises could become “official community partners” of the Florida Gators. The university decided to limit the partnership to one for each profession or type of business, and Meldon Law, a long-time supporter of the university, became the official law firm community partner.

The firm ran radio, TV, and billboard ads identifying it as an official community partner of the Florida Gators. All were reviewed and approved by Bar staff.

Staff, however, objected when the firm filed four more proposed TV ads. Two of the ads feature members of the law firm swapping jerseys with a human in the Gator mascot costume, while the voice over noted the firm is the “only official law firm partner of the Florida Gators” and “Gators won’t back down from a fight, and neither will we.”

The other two ads have similar text and images of the Gator mascots. All the ads quote lyrics from the Gator fight song that “We all stick together.”

Bar staff found the ads violate Bar Rule 4-7.15, which prohibits lawyer ads from containing the voice or images of celebrities. The rule defines a celebrity as “an individual who is known to the target audience and whose voice or image is recognizable to the intended audience. A person can be a celebrity on a regional or local level, not just a national level.”

“The intent is to show that the law firm is a supporter of the Gators,” said Tim Chinaris, representing Meldon Law. “The ad was trying to carefully avoid the idea of an endorsement…. The intent is that we’re trying to say we’re part of the Gator community.”

He added the mere appearance of the mascot in an ad did not constitute an endorsement.

“I think the law firm should be able to say, ‘We’re community partners.’ But I think it’s the fact that the Gator Nation picks the law firm looks more like an endorsement from the Gators,” said committee member Leland Hobbs.

Committee member Joe Towne moved to support the staff position that using the mascot in the ad is a celebrity endorsement.

That passed the committee on a voice vote with one dissent.

Chinaris said he expects the firm to appeal the decision to the Bar Board of Governors.

The seminar involves an attorney’s online webinar for real estate investors on foreclosures and dealing with distressed property owners. The attorney planned to advertise through third parties with social media platforms who would post information about the seminar on their platforms and also email information to their online followers.

Each promoter would be assigned a discount code and for each attendee who registered using a code, that promoter would get part of the registration fee.

Bar staff raised concerns about whether that would violate Bar Rule 4-7.17(b) because the promoters would be getting something of value for recommending the lawyer’s services. Staff also said because the promoters are well-known among their followers, it might also violate the rule banning celebrity endorsements.

The attorney said the aim of the seminar is to educate the participants, not promote his own legal services. He said that should be considered as though he were selling a book, not promoting legal services.

In a written submission to the Bar, he said the promoters are friends of his and most of their followers are known to the promoters.

But Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert said the past committee position has been seminars offered by lawyers must comply with advertising rules because they promote or lead to people seeking the lawyer’s services. While flyers posted online by promoters are subject to laxer internet advertising rules, those emailed to potential attendees must meet stricter direct mailing requirements.

Paying the promoters “per person” to get attendees violates Bar rules, she said, and “the promoters are known to a targeted audience and therefore they appear to meet the definition of a celebrity.”

The committee voted unanimously to support the staff, although committee member Bud Gardner, who made the motion, said he hopes the decision is appealed.

“I think that this has some far-reaching impacts that the Board of Governors needs to address,” he said.

The Newlin law firm submitted to the Bar a TV ad featuring a former client who had been injured in a car accident and through the firm’s efforts got an award. During the ad, the client identifies himself as a deputy sheriff.

Greg Beck, representing the firm, noted there are two overlapping Bar rules affected. One allows client testimonials in lawyer ads as long as they are truthful. A second prohibits endorsements in ads by authority figures, such as judges and police officers.

Beck argued that the rule should not be interpreted as “preventing ordinary people from stating their personal experience just because of the job that they happen to have…. I don’t think that’s what was intended.”

He also said it was more of a testimonial than an endorsement because the client only related his experiences being injured and with the law firm.

Tarbert, though, said staff opinion was that giving a testimony was “in effect an endorsement.”

The committee by voice vote upheld the staff opinion that the ad does not meet Bar rules.

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