‘Pietersen payout over Specsavers ad a lesson for ‘joker’ brands’

Specsavers libel damages payout to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen after implying he cheated during a match in a recent campaign is a “wake-up call” to brands relying on their “joker-like status” to get away with poking fun at celebrities, legal experts warn. 

Specsavers ran an advert implying England cricketers has cheated during the Ashes.

The high-street optician was forced to make the undisclosed payment after running an advert during this summer’s Ashes featuring a picture of Pietersen with the strapline: “Bat tampering in the #Ashes? Apparently Hot Spot should’ve gone to Specsavers”.

The South African took Specsavers to court against the “serious and defamatory allegations” made in the advert after it had run across the brand’s social media channels as well as in newspapers and magazines nationwide. The eyewear brand has since removed the advert and apologised to the cricketer for any offence caused.

Specsavers hoped the campaign would tap into the buzz around allegations from an Australian media outlet that Pietersen, along with other England players were taping up their bats during the test series to prevent thermal imaging umpire technology from determining where they had hit ball.

The optician has a history of pushing its “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” strapline in a sporting context, with a recent tactical advert making light of Chelsea FC’s Edin Hazard kicking a ball boy during a match. Legal experts warn that marketers risk stunts such as these backfiring, however, and point to Pietersen’s libel payout as a warning of the costs it can incite.

Duncan Lamont, partner at law firm Charles Russell, says: “Advertisers must be careful when dealing with issues such as these and be aware that the law does not allow the belief that ‘it was a joke’ as a defence. In libel law intention is irrelevant and in the eyes of the law is little different to making a bomb threat ‘joke’ in an airport; while it may seem hilarious to the maker, the joke may fail to raise a smile with the victim of the gag.”

Simon Ward, chief executive of brand consultancy Holmes & Marchant, adds: “What has previously looked like a clever, agile brand communications initiative has backfired in this case.

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