BBDO, Wrigleys should settle
Taking on Myriam Bédard is a no-win situation

If Sun-Tzu had written his military treatise The Art of War, in the 21rst century, he would surely have advised to "never engage in open combat, with some who skis long distances and practices precision sniper shooting, before breakfast."

But that is precisely what ad agency BBDO Canada Inc. and chewing gum manufacturer Wrigley Canada Inc. did, when they aroused the ire of Myriam Bédard, by using her doctored imaged on public-transit vehicles in several Quebec cities.

As the Gazette's Jan Ravensbergen wrote in his report nine day ago, Bédard lashed out at BBDO and its client Wrigley for removing all traces of her hair in a computer altered photo. This made her "look like a man," took away her "integrity as a woman," and made her feel "attacked, wounded, insulted and humiliated."

Bédard, won two gold medals the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer for the biathlon, a demanding sport which combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting.

"An error made in good faith," is how BBDO described the incident in a written statement. The agency received a written notice from Bédard on December 10, and terminated the campaign shortly thereafter.

How could unauthorized photos appear in ad produced by one of the country's largest, and most reputable ad agencies? And how could the people at Wrigley, who can surely afford to write a sponsorship check, let the ads get through its approval process?

The people at BBDO, which is affiliated with Quebec-based PNMB Communications Inc., and the international conglomerate Ominicom Group, are not talking.

But the answer might lie in the industry's growing use of stock photography. Stock photos are banks of pictures that are sold for commercial use by companies that deal with a wide variety of photographers, whose photos they "stock," and resell when a demand exists.

Traditionally, these photos were expensive, and had many restrictions accompanying their use. But agency clients were aware of these limitations and would gladly pay their hefty asking prices.

With the advent of the Net, a new category of images has evolved called "royalty free." These photos, of generally lesser quality can be downloaded instantly, and used, almost without restriction.

Advertising clients quickly got wise to this new type of photography and soon expected to pay little or nothing for many of the photos used in their ads.

Since royalty-free images are generally of lesser quality, retouching or "doctoring" them is common place. This is in stark contrast to the news industry, where doctoring photos is a controversial issue, and many publications ban it altogether.

We're just speculating here, but what may have happened is that when preparing the preliminary sketches or "comps" a photo of Bédard was used in the ad accompanied by the text: "1994, Quebec falls in love with the biathlon. Ah the Olympics!"

But contrary to Bédard's allegations, it looks like the photo retouching was not done to make her look like a man. It was done to make her look like a generic biathlete, possibly, since if a "no-name" athlete were used, no fees would have to be paid.

Finding a royalty-free photo of a biathlon competitor is not easy. A quick search at several of the more popular photo banks among local agencies showed none available of very good quality.

One of the BBDO designers may have thought that by removing the identifying characteristics, Bédard's photo could be used, and no one would notice that it was her.

So hair was removed, and the photo cropped above the waist to make the athlete's sex unclear. Her glasses were blurred to remove identifying characteristics showing through the lenses. Bédard's identifying number, and the logo on her uniform were also removed.

Seen in isolation, the photo may well be that of just about any biathlete. It's possible that marketing managers at Wrigley's and maybe even executives at BBDO did not recognize her in the ad.

Or, if they did, they may have thought the skier looked so unlike Bédard that even if she suspected it was her in the photo ­ she would not be able to prove it. What they did not count on, was Bédard tracking down the original Canadian Press photo that had been doctored.

Evidence pointing to this conclusion is found in the documentation provided to the court by Bédard's own lawyers. One brief alleges that when telephoning Bédard's representative, a BBDO employee at first denied it was her photo in the ad.

Bédard and her advisers surely realized that the photos did not resemble her much at all. But she diverted people's attention away from that fact by focusing it on how the photos supposedly made her look like a man. This is because if the photos make her look like a man, they cause her more damage than if she is not recognizable at all.

And damages are what Bédard is suing for. Going public in such a big way boosts both her visibility, and consequently, the damages she suffered.

Three years ago, an article in Info-Presse magazine gave Bédard the highest recognition/favorable rating of any Quebec personality. Howver her star has clearly fallen since her poor performance in the 1998 Olympics.

But BBDO considerably exacerbated a resolvable situation by giving Bédard's representative the runaround. According to a Canadian Press report the agency, when caught, offered the biathlete a reported $4,000 (roughly what a run-of-the-mill lingerie model makes in a two-day photo shoot) as compensation, an offer described by the Bédard camp as "ridiculous."

A threatening letter was also sent to Bédard regarding her statements on this matter, and someone from BBDO and Wrigley's law firm Lavery de Billy was dispatched to shadow the athlete at her press conference.

But clearly the smarter thing to do for BBDO and Wrigleys would be to write a check and get this thing out of the public eye. By dragging BBDO and its client both through the court of public opinion and the court of law, Bédard will cause them far more grief than they would suffer by remitting her fee.

Settling the suit would also enable the agency to discipline those responsible for the slip-up, This is something difficult to do when a company is litigation, since a chastised (or fired) employee is less likely to give testimony that would favor his employer.

A quick settlement would also allow the agency to patch up what must be a strenuous relationship with its client Wrigleys.

But if BBDO and Wrigley's want to take Bédard on, they might be better to read a little Sun-Tzu, even if a 21rst-century version is not yet available.

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  © 1998 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.