Doctor’s Promotion of ‘Vampire Facial’ a Pain in Kim Kardashian’s Neck

Advertising Law

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Kim Kardashian sank her teeth into a new publicity rights lawsuit, claiming that a doctor uses her name and likeness without permission to promote his “vampire facial” procedure.

Kardashian received the facial—where a participant’s own blood and a micro-needling technique are used to revitalize the skin—on a 2013 episode of her reality television show.

But after learning that Dr. Charles Runels uses images of her to promote his Alabama-based Cellular Medicine Association practice in pamphlets, online and even on his own LinkedIn biography page, the self-described “world-famous media and entertainment personality, model, businesswoman and entrepreneur” sued.

“Kardashian was horrified to discover that her name and likeness were plastered all over Runels’ website,” according to the California federal court complaint, from a photo Kardashian took of herself immediately following the procedure and posted on Instagram to YouTube videos featuring her image to an article titled “The Secret Legal Story Behind Kim Kardashian’s Famous ‘Vampire’ Selfie.”

Kardashian never licensed her name or likeness to Runels or in connection with the procedure, she said, and her actual endorsement for such a nationwide campaign “would command a fee well into eight figures (assuming she would even agree to do such a campaign, which she most assuredly would not).”

In fact, when she reached out to Runels to demand that he cease using her name and likeness without her consent, “he not only refused to take down the pictures of her and references to her, he had the temerity to demand that she pay him,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleged copyright infringement, trademark infringement, false endorsement and violation of Kardashian’s right of publicity. She requested a restraining order against the defendant to halt the use of her image without permission as well as statutory, punitive and exemplary damages.

To read the complaint in Kimsaprincess Inc. v. Runels, click here.

Why it matters: No stranger to publicity rights and copyright infringement lawsuits, Kardashian has made it clear that she will not hesitate to file suit when her name and likeness have allegedly been used without her permission. One has to wonder whether, if Runels had just agreed to Kardashian’s demand in the first place, this lawsuit would have ever been filed. Of course, with all the media attention the case has garnered since it involves Kim Kardashian, Runels responded via blog post on the Vampire Facial website. In it, he states that the reality star did not ask for his permission to use the Vampire Facial name to promote Kourtney & Kim Take Miami in her 2013 episode. According to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, Charles E. Runels Jr. is the registrant behind the “Vampire Facial” trademark filing as of 2013, which took effect two months before the airdate of the Vampire Facial episode of Kourtney & Kim Take Miami. Thus, it appears as though both parties are planning to sink their teeth into a good ole fashioned lawsuit and will be out for blood.

For advertisers and brands, it can be very tempting to reference a celebrity after the celebrity organically uses or otherwise promotes your product or service on social media or in other ways. However, this complaint is a good reminder that advertisers should remain cautious before using a celebrity’s name or likeness in advertising without permission, particularly if such use could be viewed as an endorsement of the advertiser’s products or services by that celebrity. The bottom line is, although a simple tweet or social media post from your brand account referencing a celebrity may arguably have a “newsy” connotation and feel like it should constitute a “fair use,” it is more likely than not that a court would view such a celebrity reference in connection with a company’s advertising as having an undeniable commercial purpose and constitute a false endorsement. The safest approach when using a celebrity sighting to promote your brand is to get the celebrity’s permission before doing so. Although the celebrity may command a payment in exchange for the endorsement, it would likely be cheaper than the millions your company could face in damages and attorneys’ fees if you choose to take an “under the radar” approach.