June 13, 2013

So that’s what’s wrong with Amanda Bynes

For the past three weeks, Justin Bieber’s gigantic mug has loomed over a Goodwill store just a short walk from my Los Angeles office.

“Why is Justin Bieber so sad?” trumpeted the massive billboard on Pico Boulevard. “Could it be because 24 percent of teens who want a job can't find one? Teen unemployment makes us all sad. Unfortunately, raising the minimum wage will only make things worse."

The people behind the campaign, a fiscally conservative D.C. think tank called the Employment Policies Institute, estimated to me today that, thanks to intense media coverage, that billboard has been seen by north of 9 million people.

And yet this week, the image mysteriously disappeared—replaced with a Dee-Snyder-esque Amanda Bynes.

“Is Amanda Bynes wigging out about teen unemployment?” the copy now reads. “The real scandal this summer isn’t the tabloid exploits of a former child star, but that 24 percent of teens who want a job can’t find one.”

As for who EPI is, it's a front group for a D.C.-based food-and-beverage lobbyist named Richard Berman, whom 60 Minutes has called "the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction." (Union activist Richard Bensinger has called Berman "Dr. Evil.") Clearly, EPI is hoping to cheaply defeat any federal or state minimum wage increases by putting a famous face on a billboard, and then letting hapless gossip journalists like me do the rest.

As for the change in EPI's poster child, I am told it's no coincidence. 

“We had to take it down,” research director Michael Saltsman says of the Bieber billboard. “[Bieber's attorneys] sent us a cease-and-desist.”

Yes, the EPI had paid a photo service for the right to use that particular Bieber image, but, as Saltsman told me, the decision to avoid a lengthy court fight "was a judgment call on our part. We were not attributing anything to Justin, we weren’t saying or implying any particular endorsement by him. But the billboard had been up for three weeks, and the conversation we’d wanted to start had occurred, and we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do.”

And yet, despite the clear warning from Hollywood lawyers, the EPI has decided to use the same tactic again: a legally-purchased image of a star, but not her legally-purchased permission.

It's hard to believe that not a single attorney at EPI knows the law when it comes to a celebrity's right to publicity. It's the reason why we don't see hundreds of billboards like this one up and down Sunset Boulevard; if you want to use a celebrity's face to send a message, you usually have to pay an endorsement fee. A large one.

So why did EPI take its chances not once, but twice? Maybe it's because Bynes isn’t quite so likely to have a squadron of power lawyers armed with their own cease-and-desist machine? I asked Saltsman if that’s why EPI chose her as its new unwitting spokeswoman.

“We here at EPI, I wouldn’t say we’re particularly savvy about which celebrities are more connected than others,” Saltsman told me. “We felt that people were talking about Amanda, she’s in the news right now.”

As for what Bynes has to say about this, I reached out to her on Twitter. No reaction as of yet.

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