A few days ago young Danish painter Nadia Plesner won an unusual battle against LVMH, one of the world’s largest fashion companies. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy had filed a lawsuit against her because they recognized themselves on her painting Darfurnica.

However, the story has its beginning in 2008 when Plesner printed T-shirts and posters with an image of a black boy with a chihuahua on his shoulder and a designer bag on his arm. Her message was that the media covers meaningless things like celebrities (especially Paris Hilton and her dog), instead of the issues that really matter. So she painted a Darfurian child like Paris and tried to get attention of the world.

Nadia Plesner wearing an infamous T shirt

Well, she got it. LVMH filled the lawsuit and objected to the use of its design and claimed that the bag was being used as bait for merchandising. Also they thought that they were unjustly associated with the situation in Darfur.

But why did she choose Louis Vuitton bag? In an interview for NY Magazine Plesner said: “I was trying to think of what assets to give the small boy so that people would relate to the images we see on most front pages. I changed the design a little bit so it wouldn’t be a complete copy, but it’s meant to be a designer bag in general.”

“I’d like to start a discussion about how the media works and why there are so many reports about big stars and totally no coverage of a situation like that in Darfur… The bag was there as a status symbol. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s got nothing to do with Louis Vuitton. That’s got nothing to do with my picture. It was just a way of showing the child off as a bit of a celebrity.”

So Louis Vuitton sued and won the case.

Nadia Plesner's painting Darfurnica (click for a larger image)

Well, in 2011 the battle between the artist and the fashion giant continued. Plesner used the boy for her painting, Dafurnica. It’s based on Picasso’s Guernica and it includes several celebrities, brands and the black boy with the LV bag. This time the boy was just a part of the bigger canvas and as such it wasn’t that visible and that important. Consequently as a part of a painting the use of the bag would be covered under artistic freedom.

However Louis Vuitton had recognized its bag and had sued her again as a breach of its intellectual property rights. LVMH won on the second occasion and the judge prohibited Plesner from exhibiting Darfurnica or showing it on her website. Additionally they had imposed a 5,000 EUR fine for every day the work remained online.

The story has a happy ending for Nadia Plesner: a court in The Hague recently announced its ruling and found that “the importance of Plesner and her freedom of expression through her work outweigh the importance of Vuitton and its protection of property.” Nadia Plesner finally won.

The case of Louis Vuitton and Nadia Plesner is an example of a very difficult situation a brand can get into. Louis Vuitton had no intention to be a part of Plesner’s work and was involved merely because it’s a recognizable brand and has a distinct logo. Here’s another similar example: according to various reports from the web, Apple doesn’t pay for its product placement. If that’s true than the producers either get some other benefits from Apple or they include Apple’s products because they’re stylish, popular, well designed, trendy or are suitable for the story / scene.

Apple product placements in #1 movies

A few months ago Brand Channel gave Apple an award for the best product placement in 2010. Apple products appeared in ten (or 30%) of the 33 films that were number one films at the US box office in 2010 and in more than one-third of all number one films at the US box office between 2001 to 2010 (that is second only to Ford). That’s a remarkable achievement, by any means, but on the other hand there are countless opportunities to portray Apple negatively.

If a brand doesn’t control its product placement, it can get very ugly. LV involvement in Plesner’s Darfurnica is not product placement, of course. Nevertheless, it was unintentional and negative for the brand. The same can happen to a brand in a movie. I wrote about Toyota Prius’ product placement in the blog post Toyota Prius – a wannabe product placement star? In the movie The Other Guys Prius was described as “a tampon on wheels” and “like driving around in a vagina.” That’s not the best way to portray your brand, isn’t it? Also, a lot of unintentional and negative use of brands can be found in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

If a brand is well known or even famous, unintentional product placement can happen very easily. Artists can use their right to express themselves freely, while brands defend themselves with their copyrights and protection of privacy. The final result of unintentional negative placement is usually a product of common sense and good PR.

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  1. Hello,

    I really can not agree that product placement in the Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho throws a negative connotation at it. A certain product being mentioned even by the most disfunctional character would imply it was a brand worth noticing in their completely brand driven reality. That is an acheivement.

    And to turn to the case of the lawsuit of the LVMH company against the artist:
    The company decided for their LV brand to become such a powerful symbol of upper-class goods, that it became a meatphor for the upper class itself. Vice versa that also ment that the LV brand has the the siamese twin attached to it and that the immage can not be controlled entirely by the company. It was all done deliberately by the company for tons of positive side effects and multiplication factors without additinal marketing money spent. However this fabulous life out of control also has its negative side for the same lack of control over the brand. It is immature from a company with a brand so big that it roams freely, to whine about negative publicity. Negative publicity is inherent and it can be steered in brand’s favour.

  2. I agree with the LV part, however I have a slightly different opinion about American Psycho. IMHO you have to think from a brand manager’s perspective. Yes, you could say that if a dysfunctional character uses your brand that it’s worth noticing, but on the other hand your brand was used by a serial killer. I wouldn’t want to be associated with a serial killer, unless it’s Hannibal Lecter ;)

  3. The media often confuses copyrights and trademarks. I haven’t read the case, but it sounds like Louis Vuitton was trying to use trademark and trade dress law to prevent the use of its design in Plesner’s painting because of the impact it would have on their brand.

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