Yesterday a new billboard for a fashion company went up in Times Square with a rather unusual model wearing the product, President Obama. Now, even though the image on the board is from Obama's trip to China and shows him wearing the company's product, of course the White House has already asked the company to take the ad down. The president did not give his permission to use his likeness and never would have if asked. Was it wrong to use the president's image for this purpose? Yes. Was it risky? Not in the least.
There is a zero percent chance of the president or the administration suing the company for monetary damages (though I wouldn't be surprised if the IRS takes a closer look at their books this year) for the misappropriation of his image. And while there's a risk of offending people, I'd actually argue that this is the safest creative execution I've seen in years, because it does something most other billboards never do, gets noticed in a way that's relevant to the product. In fact, for the cost of the billboard this company has gained exposure in national and international newspapers, the web, and television.
Most advertisers would kill for this kind of buzz. But most will never get it because they're so afraid of offending just one person. That's why most ads are boring and lifeless. If you want to create buzz, you have to incite passion and passion comes in two flavors, love and hate. Successful marketers understand this and learn to live with it.