Coat Maker Transforms Obama Photo Into Ad

Stephanie Clifford|The New York Times

A garment company in New York known for publicity stunts has seized the attention of the Obama administration.

The Weatherproof Garment Company installed a billboard in Times Square on Wednesday showing President Obama wearing what appears to be one of its coats. The image, which is licensed by The Associated Press, was taken during the president’s visit to the Great Wall of China last November. Weatherproof also put the image on its Web site home page for a time on Wednesday, promoting “The Obama Jacket.”

The White House expects to contact the company on Thursday and to ask it to take the billboard down, aides said. “This ad is clearly misleading because the company suggests the approval or endorsement of the president or the White House that it does not have,” said a White House aide.

Weatherproof billboard featuring President Barack Obama

Weatherproof’s president, Freddie Stollmack, said he recognized the coat after he saw a photograph of the presidential visit, and ordered a high-resolution photograph for confirmation. “With a magnifying glass, we saw our logo and zipper pull, and we said, ‘That’s our coat,’ ” Mr. Stollmack said.

The company issued a press release in December praising Mr. Obama’s choice of coats. And on Wednesday, it installed the billboard in Times Square at 41st Street with the image.

A Weatherproof spokesman, Allen Cohen, said the company had also tried to run ads in The New York Times, The New York Post and Women’s Wear Daily with the image, but had been turned down by the publications — something it tried to publicize this week.

The Obama administration had not approved the use of the image, a spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said in an e-mail message. “The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes,” he said.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for The A.P., said that Weatherproof had paid it the appropriate license fee for the billboard image, “but the agreement is that it requires the licensing party, in this case the Weatherproof Garment Company, to obtain the necessary clearances — that is their obligation.”

Mr. Stollmack said the company had not gained approval from the White House. Asked whether he was taking a risk, he said: “Is it a calculated risk? Not being an attorney — I’m being, really, a designer, merchandiser guy in the apparel business — I would leave that to the attorneys or whatever. We’re not saying President Obama endorses Weatherproof apparel.”

Obama on Times Square Billboard

He added: “If we were to get a letter or a call from the White House saying they didn’t approve of it or they didn’t like it or whatever, or they see it as an ad, we’ll do whatever we have to do. We’re not looking to alienate the White House.” But as of early Wednesday evening, the White House had not contacted Weatherproof, Mr. Cohen said.

Kevin M. Greenberg, a lawyer who handles intellectual property cases, said that while Weatherproof should have obtained consent from Mr. Obama as a matter of practice, “legally, the framework is that it’s very unclear where the First Amendment ends” and where public officials’ right to control their endorsements begins.

While Mr. Obama could probably get an injunction against Weatherproof’s use of his image, “the advice any good lawyer will give is sometimes there are fights not worth fighting,” said Mr. Greenberg, a partner at Flaster Greenberg in Philadelphia. “And if Barack Obama were to win this fight, he would in fact be rewarding the bad actor, simply because the fight itself” — over an injunction and damages — “would go on for a very long time and provide tremendous return to this company that’s stealing his image.”

Weatherproof’s history of attention-grabbing efforts suggests the company may be seeking controversy.

In 2008, it issued a release saying that it would run the shortest television commercial ever during the Super Bowl, at two seconds. The same day, it issued an update saying that, unfortunately, it had just learned that two-second Super Bowl slots were unavailable.

Also in 2008, Mr. Stollmack tried to wrap the guitar-playing Naked Cowboy, a street performer familiar to tourists, in a Weatherproof coat in Times Square, getting his picture taken while doing so.

The White House contacted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after it started running an anti-fur ad last week that praised Michelle Obama. Semonti Stephens, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Obama, said her office had not consented to that ad. The White House declined to comment on whether the matter had been resolved.

Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.