Peter Sorckoff on Promotional and Theme Nights
Celebrity Bobbleheads with Chris Peace Interview
Last month the Gwinnett Gladiators (ECHL) hockey team made big news with a bobblehead promotion. Instead of using a team player, coach, or mascot for their bobblehead, they went another direction...and the fans waited in line for it, some more than 3 hours.
In the April 2006 Premium Spotlight we feature the idea of producing Celebrity Bobbleheads, in lieu of using a player or a mascot.
In the process of researching the concept Chris Peace with the Gwinnett Gladiators shared his thoughts and experience from their now world famous Runaway Bride bobblehead.
Gameops.com: What steps did you take to make sure you legally could present this bobblehead?
Chris Peace: First, we probably should establish a bit of context this item was designed purely as a publicity "stunt" rather than to function as a traditional sports marketing promotion. Bottom line, our intent was to capture the attention of the Atlanta-based media, which is focused nearly exclusively on the major-league franchises of this market, including the NHL Thrashers (our parent affiliate).
No whining it's just simply a fact that a minor league hockey franchise here in Atlanta is not granted the essential routine coverage by newspaper or broadcast television and radio outlets for dissemination of scores/highlights, upcoming game date awareness standings, etc., which is in stark contrast to comparable coverage provided to equivalent ECHL franchises based in smaller markets. We certainly spend more on advertising than a majority of teams in our league but advertising is only a part of any sports marketing plan, and media exposure is an extremely vital component. We certainly can't complain - ultimately, the benefits exceed anything available in a smaller market if we are successful in cultivating and enhancing our media relations potential here. (For perspective, Gwinnett County comprises the expansive northeastern suburban sprawl of Atlanta, somewhat analogous to what Orange County is to Los Angeles.)
As far-fetched as it may sound, a primary factor influencing the initial "idea" and subsequent decision to develop this promotion in the first place would be directly attributable to our President/General Manager Steve Chapman's keen sense of humor (some might say his Irish heritage) and our overall promotional philosophy of: a) fun, b) fun, and c) fun.
In order to research whether this admittedly "crazy idea" could be legally presented, we consulted numerous legal resources to consider the issues celebrity likeness laws in particular. Parties associated with the saga/media phenomenon had previously sold the rights to their story for a widely-publicized $500,000 sum, but (contrary to several published media reports), we were not advised that any individual was "fair game" as a result. It may be technically correct, but it is not entirely accurate or reflective of our organizational mind-set. We were absolutely determined that the promotion would be conducted in a professional manner. It was undoubtedly audacious and outrageous, but certainly not reckless or irresponsible.
Instead, the item was purposely developed and intentionally designed to exploit the worldwide media phenomenon rather than an individual. The original saga unfolded literally in our backyard. While it may be a sad indictment of our culture, Duluth and Gwinnett County, Georgia were "ground-zero" for arguably the biggest media sensation in years. "The Runaway Bride" is definitely our most famous local resident and an internationally recognized figure. (Interesting side note Gwinnett County is named for Georgia representative Button Gwinnett, one of the original signers of The Declaration of Independence. Very few local residents are even aware of that. "The Runaway Bride" is certainly much more famous than the county's own historical namesake.) Gwinnett is part of our identity and half of our business name. What other team could have justified such a publicity stunt in light of the inherent risk of litigation? None would have even considered it we were uniquely fortunate to have an exploitable phenomenon available to us.
Eventually, the underlying legal risk associated with the promotion became a side-issue we accepted that a slight vulnerability existed relative to interpretation of celebrity likeness/infringement laws. However, we had never intended to offer to purchase or sell the bobbleheads for profit. As a giveaway item, they posed the potential financial threat of compromising the cost of production for the dolls vs. significant exposure gain. A consensus of opinion had formed that the possibility of litigation was negligible since "celebrity" status in this instance had been attained as a result of significant infamy and notoriety. The broader concept of the "saga" or "phenomenon" itself was considered exploitable and we were not intending direct financial gain as a result of marketing a resemblance/likeness or usage of name. In effect, consistency in both intent and execution were the key factors in reducing the vulnerability/risk. And although no thought was ever given to stocking them in our official merchandise inventory, I must admit we were tempted er, intrigued when they were selling for $100 on e-bay.
Several important steps designed to lessen the potential for litigation were considered and implemented from the start:
a) The head of the doll was selected from generic inventory from the vendor. No attempt was made to create a caricature figurine with facial resemblance. (We flatly rejected incorporating a rather unflattering distinctive facial characteristic associated with the actual individual commonly referred to as "bug-eyed" so that the item would not be interpreted as have been intentionally demeaning, humiliating or embarrassing in design.)
b) We incorporated "World Famous Runaway Bride" as a title on the base so as to prevent any perceived trademark/copyright infringement relative to "The Runaway Bride" motion picture, etc.
c) We billed the promotion as "Runaway Bride Any Similarity To Actual Persons Is Unintended And Purely Coincidental" Bobblehead Doll - a rather blatant, overt comedic disclaimer element so as to strengthen the humorous and lighthearted nature of the stunt. However, it was also a necessary proviso and functioned in a dual role as an additional precautionary technique.
d) We prefaced media interviews with a firm privacy request for the individuals associated with the original events so that our promotion would not become a nuisance or bother. In order to assure this sort of ancillary contact would be lessened, we delayed our major promotional release/"media blitz" activities until the Thursday preceding the Sunday game date.
e) We polled numerous civic leaders for their reaction not a single negative comment was received.
Pro Panel - The Bobblehead Bungle