White House not sold on David Ortiz's selfie with Obama

David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox

David Ortiz #34 of the Boston Red Sox takes the field to warmup before a game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, April 10, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Thanks to David Ortiz and Samsung, and with an unintentional assist from President Barack Obama, the selfie, like autographs and sports memorabilia, has lost its innocence.

And many people, including some at the White House, are feeling duped.

See, the moment Ortiz asked to take a cellphone photo of himself with the president during the Red Sox's recent trip to Washington, it was widely seen as just the latest example of Big Papi's famously outgoing nature.

Even Obama had to laugh at the impromptu request from the Red Sox slugger, turning to the gaggle of photographers to say: "He wants to take a selfie! It's the Big Papi selfie!"

Obama obliged, Ortiz snapped the shot and another tweet went viral.

But the real story only begins there.

Turns out Ortiz had just reached an endorsement deal with Samsung to be its "MLB social media insider." That was revealed a day before the White House trip on SportsBusiness Journal's website in a story that said Ortiz "will be tweeting and sending photos on Samsung's behalf" at the White House.

This wasn't Samsung's first venture in selfie promotion. During the Academy Awards, host Ellen DeGeneres took a multicelebrity selfie with a Samsung device as part of a reported ad/product placement deal with ABC. That photo, which featured DeGeneres with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, went viral almost immediately, setting a Twitter record for the most retweeted photo.

Samsung also sent a statement to reporters shortly after Ortiz's tweet went viral and not-so-surreptitiously mentioned that Ortiz took the presidential selfie with its new smartphone.

As a result, the White House isn't happy.

Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, recently said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that Obama "obviously didn't know anything about Samsung's connection to this." He also said White House lawyers had reached out to Samsung's lawyers to discuss the situation.

"In general, whenever someone tries to use the president's likeness to promote a product, that's a problem with the White House counsel," Pfeiffer said.

Representatives for Samsung did not return a message seeking comment for this story. Ortiz and his marketing representative have insisted the presidential selfie wasn't a planned stunt. And the White House hasn't said what action, if any, it plans beyond speaking with Samsung.

A lawsuit is unlikely. The White House does not have much legal ground to stand on in a potential lawsuit, according to Hofstra media law professor Susan Drucker, because all that is proven is that Samsung signed Ortiz to a marketing deal and retweeted Ortiz's selfie from one of their phones.

Drucker, a lawyer herself, said the White House's strongest case might be "misappropriation," which she defined as the commercial use of a person's likeness without his or her permission.

"But then you get into this question, what is commercial use?" she said. "And is simply a retweet that may benefit a company or a celebrity endorser, does that amount to larger commercial purposes? Is that an endorsement or not? Even that I think is less than absolutely clear."

Drucker described Samsung's strategy of shooting for viral retweets from sports stars as forward-thinking and unconventional, something akin to product placement on television or in movies.

"The only backlash is if the public perception was that they were deceptive and it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths," she said.

Which would defeat the purpose, of course, as public perception is the end game in any marketing strategy. That is why marketing experts have a hard time believing Samsung actually sought to use the president as a prop all in the name of attention.

"If it's something that Samsung set out to do this, it may be genius on their part, but unprofessional and inappropriate at the same time," said Denise White, CEO of EAG Sports Management, a firm that negotiates marketing deals for professional athletes.

White said there's a social media aspect of every marketing contract she does these days, and companies such as Samsung are attracted to athletes engaged on Twitter.

Ortiz has 645,000 Twitter followers and the selfie was retweeted more than 40,000 times.

But there are risks attached to contracting athletes with loose lips.

Another Samsung client, Miami Heat star LeBron James, tweeted last month: "My phone just erased everything it had in it and rebooted. One of the sickest feelings I've ever had in my life!!!"

Not too long later, James deleted the tweet.

Despite the risks, White encourages athletes to embrace social media because the ones who are good at it are going to benefit. And still, for all we know, Ortiz may have been doing just that when he asked Obama to take a selfie with him . . . albeit with his Samsung camera.

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