How memes and misjudgment impacted Barbie and Oppenheimer's reputation

4 August 2023 | Applicable law: US | 2 minute read

This article was originally published in The Times on August 2, 2023.

Two cinema summer blockbusters - Barbie and Oppenheimer - have taken a tumble from the fluffy pink cloud of positivity on which they were flying high. In a crass mashup of the sweet-treat and the darker epic biography a meme may have the movies’ producers Warner Brothers laughing on the other side of their corporate face.

The decision to release the two films together was inspired — red-carpet duets between the A-list stars, double feature box-office bonanzas; imaginative memes melding the severity of the suited scientist with the frippery of the fashion doll.

Not so inspired was the tweet by Warner Brothers’ official US site responding to a fan-made medley of a smiling Barbie resplendent in mushroom-cloud hairdo against a backdrop of an atomic explosion. This was shocking enough for its insensitivity to the Japanese killed, maimed and affected by the bomb drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but more shocking still for the company’s brief but tone-deaf engagement with the “joke”.

The 1975, sitcom The Good Life, featured the humourless Margo Leadbetter pleading “Tell me why it’s funny!” amid guffaws from her cheerful chums around her. And indeed, one person’s mighty joke may be another’s painful poison. But if many of us don’t see the funny side of the deaths of 200,000 people we may ask not “why is it funny?” but, “How did it happen?”

The social media swamp can trap the unsuspecting and sophisticated alike — and businesses and individuals are wise to be alert to what is lurking beneath the murk.

Revenue can be lost amid public confusion over passing-off or the unauthorised use of copyright material or trademarked logos. The legal quicksand can suck up months if not years in defending rights or fighting litigation.

Information can reach millions at the touch of a button, so the privacy kitty cat can be for ever let out of the bag where private and confidential information is shared in error or spite on social media platforms. Whereas a former partner in business or life might once have sent poison-pen letters in print, now harassment is rife across the internet, requiring lawyers with quick reactions to defend their victimised clients with take-down requests for breach of acceptable use policies.

And without a thought for the consequences, barbed words are hurled across the social media battlefield breaking a brand as surely as sticks and stones break bones. Any unwitting talent like Margot Robbie caught in the crossfire might plead with their lawyers “tell me if it’s legal” if their reputation hit the skids through an unfair association with an ugly meme.

Legal and reputation challenges are as happy bedfellows on the internet as Barbie and Oppenheimer. Those wishing to enhance their brands online while mitigating legal risks should opt for the double bill and consider both.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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