Ferris Bueller’s Pay Day
In a world where it is getting harder to get an audience for commercials, Madison Avenue needs a hook. When that hook is a famous copyright and the audience is the Super Bowl’s it is best to play it safe and get a license, even if it comes at a cost.
The Super Bowl, in addition to being an excuse to take a few hours off from studying and off of a New Year’s diet, is also an event that is replete with significance for intellectual property, (although this may be more evident to those of us with a flagging interest in professional football.) The NFL is famous for going after trademark infringers; the athletes and their trainers are searching for innovations that will give even the slightest edge using materials and devices both under and out of patent protection; and the telecast itself, not to mention the half-time show, is all protected by copyright. This is all before we even consider the fact that it is the largest television event of the year, and unlike many it is all but immune to being DVR’d to speed through later, making its significance for marketing grow in the last few years.
One of the most anticipated commercials of this Super Bowl was a Honda commercial featuring Mathew Broderick reprising his Ferris Bueller character. The rise of individuals recording shows to watch later and watching television online has made commercial advertising more difficult. For these reasons, advertising companies try to hype their commercials to get voluntary viewership online or on the recorded DVR version, all while maintaining focus on their primary goal of selling goods and services.
One way to pique interest in commercials is by using characters that the audience can connect to, in some cases this is a task of branding like in M&M’s trademarked candy pieces, but sometimes a company draws on other characters. This year Honda used the plot line of Ferris Bueller to sell their CR-V’s. This is not the first time they have used a famous movie character to sell their cars. In the 1990s, Honda got in trouble for using a character stylized after James Bond to sell its Civic del Sol convertible. MGM sued Honda in the Central District of California for misappropriating its character and was able to receive damages and enjoin Honda’s further use.
Honda did not make that mistake this year. Ferris Bueller is owned by Paramount Pictures, a subsidiary of media conglomerate Viacom, which is in a continuing legal battle with YouTube over copyright infringement. Honda licensed the Ferris Bueller character from Paramount pictures, and neither side is disclosing what Honda paid for it. If I were Paramount, I would have asked for a hefty sum, because as advertisers feel continued pressure to pull audiences to them, copyright owner’s iconic characters become increasingly valuable.