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Friday, March 4, 2011

Question for Natalie Portman and Dior: Do Morals Clauses Cut Both Ways?

Natalie_Portman Big news from the Oscars involving Natalie Portman (pictured)!  No, the news is not about what she won.  Nor is the news that she did not laugh awkwardly during her acceptance speech, although this time the moment provoked tears rather than laughter.  No.  The news is that she wore a Rodarte dress despite her contractual relationship with Dior and endorsement of its Miss Dior Cherie fragrance.  Sidebar: the consensus is that she looked ***faaaabulousss!***

It is not clear that her choice of attire was related to her recent denunciation of Dior's chief designer, John Galliano, for an anti-Semitic rant -- or perhaps for a series of them.  While some reports suggest that Ms. Portman has severed her ties with Dior, the New York Times provides the more sober assessment that it is not clear what effect her statements relating to Mr. Galliano will have on her contract with Dior.  Dior has already terminated Mr. Galliano's employment, despite what has been characterized as an apology for his comments.  It's not clear what Galliano is apologizing for, since he denies the allegations and stresses his opposition to all forms of prejudice.

In any case, the controversy raises an interesting theoretical possibilty.  We have been posting a bit recently about morals clauses.  This situation raises the question of whether an athlete or celebrity who has agreed to endorse a product can opt out of the contract based on the conduct of the endorsee or one of its agents.  In this case, the possibility is remote, given Dior's actions in terminating Mr. Galliano's employment, but what if Dior had accepted his pseudo-apology and kept him on, subject to his agreement to seek counseling?  Although we don't know the specifics with respect to Ms. Portman's contract, let's assume that it includes a morals clause.  Could a court imply that the clause must be reciprocal? 

If the purpose of such clauses is to protect the endorsee from being sullied with the moral taint associated with a falled endorser, is there any danger of its working in reverse?  If Al Gore had signed up to promote the pre-spill BP as an environmentally friendly power company, he might want to opt out post-spill.  But could Ms. Portman, who has described herself as "an individual who is proud to be Jewish," really be tainted by her association with a Dior fragrance, based on the now-disavowed views of one prominent Dior employee?

[JT]

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