Positive Cynicism – Ralph Lauren, the Streisand Effect and the DMCA

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

Last month, an absolutely wretched Ralph Lauren ad appeared on the website Photoshop Disasters, an invaluable site that catalogs particularly egregious retouches in advertising.

The image in question showed a woman in Lauren clothing that had been so badly retouched that it was actually disturbing to look at. Boing Boing picked up the post and ran the image with the single comment: “Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis.” Which pretty much says it all.

I can’t believe someone took a look at the model in question (Filippa Hamilton, for the record) and felt it needed retouching in the first place. That someone took that image and took so much off of the woman’s waist that she looks like a melting Pez dispenser is kind of unsettling. That this same person looked at his or her finished work and thought “Yes, this looks like a realistic woman” is downright creepy. And that this image passed any number of people it had to without someone once pointing out that the Photoshopped model looked like a believable human being and not something from a bad science fiction movie is almost sinister.

But I don’t want to talk about yet another example of the fashion industry’s unrealistic idea of (and possible contempt for) typical womanhood.

Instead, I want to talk about what happened after Boing Boing ran with the story: the folks at Ralph Lauren responded by filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint against Boing Boing and Photoshop Disasters, claiming that they had infringed on a copyright.

I’ve talked a bit in this column about the DMCA and the ways that the entertainment industry have abused it to control your access to their products. But this case is even more galling. It’s not just the stupidity of not allowing Prince fans to embed a music video on their personal websites. It’s a corporation using the DMCA as a tactic to silence criticism. Don’t misunderstand me: it’s still stupid. But it’s also insidious.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems like a pretty clear case of Fair Use to me. Fair Use laws allow the media to reproduce creative content for the purposes of commentary and criticism. Lauren claimed that both posts, which were commenting on and criticizing the ad, had infringed on the ad’s copyright by posting it. This bit of corporate testiness and sensitivity to criticism flew just perfectly with Google Blogspot, the host of Photoshop Disasters. Blogspot’s kneejerk reaction to any DMCA complaint is to simply delete the post without giving the blogger a chance to respond, refute or even recognize the claim.

Boing Boing’s ISP, Priority Colo, doesn’t respond to DMCA notices with abject terror and unswerving loyalty, so they passed it on to Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow, who responded last week with a warning of his own, promising that every time Lauren threatened them with a lawsuit over criticism, he would “reproduce the original criticism,” “publish your spurious legal threat along with copious mockery” and “offer nourishing soup and sandwiches to your models.” Others have pointed out that Doctorow would be well within his rights to file a complaint against Ralph Lauren for making a Non-Meritorious Claim.

What’s funny about trying to silence critics in the Internet Age is that it never, ever works. The Internet is one big Streisand Effect. For those who don’t know, the Streisand Effect occurs when an attempt to censor opinion or information backfires and has the unintended consequence of making the original opinion or information even more public. The name comes from a 2003 incident where Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for $50 million to have a photograph of her house removed from a website documenting the erosion of the California coastline. The case itself highlighted the picture’s existence, and over 420,000 people visited the offending website within a month. (The Wikipedia page even has the picture on it.) It was a massive backfire.

Ralph Lauren is the latest beneficiary of the Streisand Effect; the story was picked up by the Huffington Post, Yahoo!, and ABC – even the Register in the UK commented on it. The ad has received international attention for being symbolic not only of a fashion culture that seems to think the ideal woman doesn’t have a spine, but also of a corporate culture so afraid of external criticism that it uses weasel tactics like spurious DMCA notices to stifle it. Congratulations on your unintended consequence. Do you feel better now?

The company, embarrassed, even released a statement to Extra, saying: “For over 42 years we have built a brand based on quality and integrity. After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

Notice that they address the ad itself, but not their weasel tactics. It’s left the Internet with any number of comments along the lines of: “I had no opinion about Ralph Lauren before, but now I will never shop there and tell everyone else I know not to.” Because it’s just another example of corporate contempt for American opinion. They don’t want to hear if we like something or not; they want us to buy it and shut up, and they’ll have their lawyers let us know all about it. And it will always backfire.

Was it really worth the trouble?

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

  1. Courtney October 13, 2009
  2. Joelle October 13, 2009
  3. MC October 14, 2009
  4. Jeremy October 14, 2009

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