Obama-Ortiz selfie: Is White House really that mad?

The White House has objected to a Samsung division putting the now-iconic photo of President Obama and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz up on social media.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Red Sox slugger David Ortiz takes a selfie with President Obama, holding a Boston Red Sox jersey presented to the president during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Tuesday, where the president honored the 2013 World Series baseball champions.

Is the White House really that mad about the selfie that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz took with President Obama earlier this week? On the surface, it sure sounds so. Administration officials say they are not happy about finding out Mr. Ortiz had inked a deal with Samsung days before taking the shot during a Rose Garden celebration of the Sox’s 2013 world championship.

After all, a Samsung division put the now-iconic photo up on social media, and it got picked up and spread around by users tens of thousands of times in following days.

“As a rule, the White House objects to attempts to use the president’s likeness for commercial purposes. And we certainly object in this case,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday.

Translation: Ortiz should not expect an invitation to a state dinner anytime soon.

But look, the White House almost has to show umbrage about this incident. It’s been widely reported and framed in such a manner as to present the president as being fooled by Ortiz into helping him make money. There is no way the White House can just say “no biggie” while perhaps pointing out that Mr. Obama is actually a White Sox fan.

If they just went along with it, other more crass self-promoters might be emboldened. From a legal point of view, officials have to at least try to discourage the use of the president’s image for commercial purposes.

Though there are copyright issues involved and various state and federal laws on the ability of individuals to control their image for commercial purposes, the application of this law to presidents may be a murky area. The First Amendment gives a free expression overtone to uses of the chief executive’s image, notes Katie Zezima of The Washington Post in an interesting post on the legal aspects of the selfie.

Public dissuasion may be the Oval Office’s best weapon here. It's talked a toy company into pulling dolls named “Sasha” and “Malia” from the market. It got a clothing company to take down a big Times Square photo of Obama wearing one of the company's coats.

The photo itself does not make Obama look bad. He appears smiling and spontaneous and approachable, and White House press aides spend lots of time trying to project just that image for the president in the media. It’s not like he’s holding up a sign that says, “Buy a Galaxy Note 3, I would but the NSA won’t let me.”

Trust us, there are officials in the West Wing who are very happy about the attention this incident has received, since the attention makes it even more likely that the photo goes viral.

Plus, as we wrote earlier, all presidents are complicit in publicity for particular commercial endeavors. When Obama chooses Costco for a presidential speech, it’s publicity for Costco over other big-box stores. When he (or any other chief executive) makes the standard stop-at-a-regular-lunch-spot appearance and buys food, the publicity can be life-changing. A few years ago, Obama and family spent a few days in Bar Harbor, Maine. Every ice cream store they patronized still has up pictures and signs to the effect that “Obama ate here.”

So, yeah, the White House probably wishes Ortiz had handled this whole thing better. But are they furious? That might be going too far.

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