For several years now, New York-based streetwear brand Supreme has been pairing up with celebrities for ad campaigns. You can pretty much always count on these ads to feature the celebrity posing for a photo while wearing a Supreme box logo tee. And who better to take these photos for the brand with a cult-like following than the oft-controversial Terry Richardson?
Enter The Smiths frontman, Steven Morrissey, who is the latest face for Supreme’s celebrity collaboration series. While many can’t imagine a more perfect pairing, word has it that Morrissey and the New York-based brand are not quite seeing eye to eye.
The trouble apparently started last year, when Morrissey was approached about appearing on Supreme posters and t-shirts. After dotting the i's and crossing the t's (in legal terms: an agreement was reached and a fee agreed on), a two-hour photo shoot ensued. And then Supreme sent some of the photos to the musician as options to use for the ad campaign.
All pretty normal as far as a celebrity ad campaign goes. But this is where things get interesting. Earlier this month, Morrissey took to a Morrissey fan site to renounce the photo and his connection with Supreme. He not only disapproves of the photo, which he explained is “fit only for a medical encyclopedia,” but he also has issue with Supreme’s association with fast food restaurant White Castle. You see, Morrissey has long been known for his anti-meat stance, so his connection to a brand that has a connection to a chain that serves meat is not something he’s willing to tolerate.
Supreme has since issued a somewhat lengthy response on Facebook. According to the statement, the agreement between the two parties “prohibits Morrissey from ‘unreasonably’ withholding approval of the use of photographs taken at the photo shoot.” It’s also pointed out that when the Manchester-raised musician rejected all of the photos without explanation and then offered an unusable alternative (unusable because the image had already been made public), Supreme provided several options: 1) to re-do the entire photo shoot at Supreme’s expense, 2) to select one of the many options from the Terry Richardson shoot, or 3) to return the money that was paid to Morrissey by Supreme.
Morrissey allegedly ignored these options, and, of course, we know that Supreme went ahead with the ad campaign.
Which brings us one of Morrissey’s statements, and the reason we’re interested: “Supreme were warned by my lawyer and accountant that the photograph should NOT be used. Supreme ignored this advice. Hence this mess.”
So let’s say he decides to sue, does the singer actually have a chance to win?
Typically speaking, when a celebrity, athlete, or in this case, musician, enters into an agreement with a company, an endorsement agreement dictates what’s required from everyone involved. And more often than not, these agreements have in them what’s known as a morals clause. These clauses vary from contract to contract, but the basic idea is to allow a company to legally terminate a contract, recoup payment, or levy fines when the celebrity misbehaves.
A broadly worded morals clause will allow a company to end an agreement for a variety of reasons. Obviously breaking the law would be included, but so too would any number of behaviors that can fall short of a criminal conviction, such as public fights, domestic abuse, drug rumors, and/or when the endorser criticizes the product or brand.
As we recently told you, there are several examples of celebrity/athlete endorsements gone wrong because of bad behavior (think: Manny Paquiou). And this behavior often triggers the morals clause.
But a morals clause protects the company being endorsed. In this case, that would be Supreme. That obviously doesn’t help our angry musician. What Morrissey would need is a reverse morals clause.
REVERSE MORALS CLAUSE
Reverse morals clauses are relatively new in the world of contracts. The purpose is to give the celebrity the ability to bow out of a contract if the company they are supposed to be endorsing is suddenly surrounded by scandal.
Let’s say, for example, a Jewish actress has an endorsement deal with a notable fashion house. Then let’s say that the creative director for this fashion house makes anti-Semitic comments during a drunken tirade. This might be a situation in which the actress would want to rely on her reverse morals clause.
Like we said, though, reverse morals clauses are a new development, and thus they are not necessarily a standard part of an endorsement agreement. Not surprisingly, companies aren’t dying to provide a celebrity with an out, so it’s most likely something that has to be asked for, as opposed to an automatic part of an agreement. What’s more, the celeb asking for the reverse morals clause probably needs to bring a certain showing of a good reputation to the table before a company is going to agree to include this type of clause.
SO WHAT ABOUT MORRISSEY?
We haven’t seen Morrissey’s agreement with Supreme, but for argument’s sake, let’s assume there is a reverse morals clause. Would he have had grounds to terminate the agreement because he didn’t like the photo and didn’t want to be associated with meat?
If there is a reverse morals clause in the agreement, it will specify what kind of conduct triggers the clause. Terms like “public disrepute, scandal, or ridicule” and “tending to shock or offend consumers” might be what you’d expect to see.
In this case, it’s hard to imagine that Supreme’s use of Morrissey’s photo rises to this level. The first issue Morrissey has is that he doesn’t like the photo. Not a novel concept, right? (Remember when Elle Brazil photoshopped a photo of Coco Rocha)? We’re all our own worst critics and all that. But the only scenario in which this would matter here is if Supreme gave Morrissey carte blanche with respect to approval of the photos, which we know isn’t the case because the agreement prohibited the singer from “unreasonably” withholding approval. And even if that was part of the agreement, Supreme says that it offered to reshoot the photos at no cost to Morrissey, which was allegedly never acknowledged, much less acted upon.
The second issue is a little bit more of a grey area. Morrissey is widely known for his stance against meat. Just a few examples: There’s the “Meat is Murder” song from The Smiths, last year the singer banned meat caterers backstage at his shows, and in 2009, he briefly left the stage at Coachella because he could smell meat from the concession area. So obviously the singer doesn’t want to be associated with a fast food hamburger chain. But the fact that he has moral beliefs against meat doesn’t automatically void a contract simply because his face is tenuously (in our opinion) connected with White Castle.
A contract can be voided for a number of reasons, including misrepresentation, non-disclosure of material facts, or a breach of the terms. So let’s say Supreme promised that it would not ever associate itself with a fast food chain, and then did so, that could be grounds to void the contract. Or maybe Supreme knew it was going to collaborate with White Castle and purposely withheld this information, knowing that Morrissey would back out of the ad agreement. The more likely scenario is that there was a reverse morals clause that specifically addressed Morrissey’s meat policy and Supreme breached that clause.
But even if this last scenario is what happened, Morrissey will probably have a hard time getting around the fact that, according to Supreme, it offered Morrissey a way out of the contract. All he had to do was “return the money.”
We’ll see if Moz decides to go to court.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a law school graduate who writes about fashion, the legal avenues available for protecting it, and the ways in which the laws are falling short. She is currently admitted to the NY State Bar.