A week ago, Obama supporters were gleefully poking fun at Mitt Romney’s claims to “love Big Bird” during the first 2012 presidential general election debate, at which he reiterated his intent to cut funding to PBS if elected. But on the eve of the vice presidential debate, it’s looking like the president's re-election campaign might have had a bit too much fun trying to ruffle Romney’s feathers by casting him as the mortal enemy of a beloved children’s puppet.
On Tuesday, the Obama campaign released an ad mocking Romney’s designs on PBS, jestingly referring to Big Bird as an “evil genius” responsible for the country’s economic crisis. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about,” says the narrator in throaty voiceover. “It’s ‘Sesame Street.’”
Though Sesame Workshop showed a sense of humor after Romney’s comment -- tweeting a statement Thursday that it is a nonpartisan organization, but “happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird” -- the organization behind “Sesame Street” was clearly not happy with Big Bird’s likeness being used in an attack ad.
On Tuesday, Sesame Workshop released a statement in response to President Barack Obama's Big Bird ad: “We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove ‘Sesame Street’ characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.”
As of Wednesday afternoon EDT, Obama’s campaign had not announced any decision on whether or not to pull the ad, which remained live on YouTube and elsewhere. On Tuesday, campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters traveling to an Ohio election event on Air Force One that the campaign was considering Sesame Workshop’s request.
"It doesn't change the fact that there's only one candidate in this race who is going to continue to fight for Big Bird and Elmo, and he's riding on this plane," Psaki was quoted by CBS News in comments to reporters. "There's been a strong grassroots outcry over the attacks on Big Bird. … This is something that mothers across the country are alarmed about. And we're tapping into that."
Perhaps mobilized by “Sesame Street’s” shaming, Romney supporters are having a social media field day, tweeting their criticism of Obama’s presumed prioritizing of a pop culture figure over global crises. A few days ago, a Twitter search of "Big Bird" yielded results that skewed heavily anti-Romney, with the majority of messages chastising the GOP candidate for inappropriately targeting PBS, and, by extension, “Sesame Street.” But since Tuesday, the same search finds a significant number of messages critical of Obama’s campaign -- quite a remarkable turn of events for a so-called ‘gaffe’ that should have been Romney’s to live down.
Now, in a week that found Romney leading the polls for the first time since accepting the GOP nomination, Big Bird seems to be a bigger problem for Obama than his opponent -- at least from a public relations point of view. And the lingering spotlight on Big Bird -- which we can thank Obama for -- has not only given critics an opportunity to slam the incumbent’s priorities, it’s given rise to increased scrutiny on PBS and “Sesame Street” financials. On Tuesday, the Atlantic Wire published information from publicly filed tax documents that revealed that the puppeteer behind Big Bird makes well over $300,000 a year -- news that prompted a right-wing Twitter refrain that Big Bird is a member of the much-maligned “1 percent” (which, as IBTimes earlier reported, is incorrect.)
Still, while Big Bird-gate may have pecked away temporarily at the public perception of Obama’s re-election strategy, the campaign should not expect legal troubles for using the puppet in the anti-Romney spot, despite what Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming suggested in statement -- delivered via satellite -- at Wednesday’s Abu Dhabi Media Summit. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Ming criticized the Big Bird ad as a “violation of our ethics,” adding that the Obama’s campaign “did not have permission.”
As Poytner and Politico have both pointed out, the campaign likely did not and does not need Sesame Workshop’s permission to use Big Bird’s image: Political ads are typically protected from copyright infringement charges by the fair use doctrine. “The Supreme Court has said time and again that the most free speech of all, the speech that has to have the most protection, is political speech,” wrote Poytner’s Al Tomkins.
Obama’s Big Bird ad is decidedly free of liability charges on at least two of the four criteria for fair use -- first, copyrighted work is usable based on the length of the work (soundbites are fine, entire episodes are not) and second, usage of copyrighted material must not infringe on the copyright holder’s ability to earn money from the work. On the contrary, it seems more than likely that Sesame Workshop could benefit financially from Big Bird’s suddenly resurgent popularity: Already, he is on his way to becoming this year’s most popular Halloween costume.
Multiple requests to Sesame Street Workshop for comment were not returned.
(For more on fair use, see Rachel Sklar’s 2010 Mediate column.)