Labatt Breweries of Canada is threatening to sue the Montreal Gazette unless the newspaper takes down a photo it believes could be disastrous to its brand: suspected murderer Luka Magnotta posing with one of its flagship products.
Mr. Magnotta was arrested in Berlin on Monday after a week-long, international manhunt. He's accused of killing Chinese student Lin Jun in Montreal, dismembering his corpse and mailing body parts to the offices of Canadian political parties.
In one of the early stories about the international manhunt, The Montreal Gazette ran a photo of Mr. Magnotta posing with a bottle of Labatt Blue, which it retrieved from his Facebook page. The product is front and centre in the image with its label and logo clearly visible.
"As I am sure you can understand, this image is highly denigrating to our brand, and we are disturbed that this image remains on your site despite repeated requests and the many images available of this person," Karyn Sullivan, Labatt's associate general counsel, wrote in a letter to the Gazette.
The image is a worst-case-scenario version of a struggle marketers contend with every day: the loss of control they have over their brand images. With social media use on the rise, companies cannot control what people say about them, or how their products are portrayed. Media outlets increasingly turn to social networks such as Facebook to piece together the image of a suspect in a crime. In an extreme case such as this, brands are in danger of becoming collateral damage – even if that damage pales in comparison to the larger story.
However, Labatt is at risk of exacerbating the damage, said Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.
"Labatt's is really drawing attention to themselves, to the extent that the number of people who would have seen this, and drawn bad conclusions about Labatt's, is less than the number of people who will now be aware of the story," he said. "...I think they've made it worse rather than better."
The letter from Labatt threatens to pursue "legal avenues if required," arguing that the photo could easily be replaced with another. But the Gazette's executive editor, Raymond Brassard, said that the image was publicly available, and that the paper had no intention of swapping it out for something else.
"The image originally appeared on Magnotta's personal Facebook page and on his blog and thus is newsworthy. There is no connection made between the brand and the suspect in the accompanying caption, headline or news story," he responded.
The Gazette story refers to Mr. Magnotta's prolific online profile, and how "a quick Google search of Luka Rocco Magnotta turns up links to chat rooms, Facebook pages, pornographic imagery, YouTube videos, a personal website and even an (unverified) Twitter account."
It's because there is so much material available for publishers to print that Labatt felt it could make the unconventional request.
"We hope that a publication such as the Montreal Gazette would understand that this matter is of utmost importance to our company, and, given the number of other options available not containing a brand image, would remove the image of its own volition," Labatt's letter stated.
Even when a product becomes associated with the victim in a crime, and not with the alleged perpetrator, brands are extremely sensitive about being thrust into the spotlight because of a news story. Earlier this year, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida made headlines. After reports indicated the young man was unarmed and carrying a bag of Skittles he had bought at a store, crowds protesting for justice in the case began using the candy as a prop. Many hoisted bags of Skittles in the air during demonstrations.
Mars Inc. subsidiary The Wrigley Co., which makes Skittles, was cautious to stay out of the media attention surrounding the case and the attendant protests, even though the product was largely used as a symbol of innocence.
In response to requests for comment, in March the company replied in a statement that it was "saddened" by the news and expressed condolences to Mr. Martin's family and friends.
"We ... feel it inappropriate to get involved or comment further as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy," it said in the statement.
This case is a much more negative association for Labatt, of course – especially because alcoholic beverages rely so heavily on social affirmation in their marketing.
"It's an image-conscious product. You drink the image," Prof. Middleton said. "I understand [Labatt's] motivation. However, I think they're being a bit oversimplistic ... This is negative, yes. But nobody's going to put together cause and effect, that this is a bad brand because this is a bad person."
The question turns, as well, to whether the company wants to be seen as overstepping its rights in trying exert control over the Gazette's editorial decisions.
The photo didn't run in the print edition of the Gazette, which theoretically makes it easy for the paper to cleanse its site of references Labatt finds offensive from a brand perspective. But publishers are resistant to make changes to their Web stories, which are considered as much a part of the historical record of what's printed in physical copies of the newspaper.
"Editorially speaking, it is not in our interest to promote or not promote any company's brand and in this case, after seeking legal counsel, we see no reason to remove the picture," the Gazette said.