Protecting The Brand: Aziz Ansari Case Study

Artists need to know how to protect their brand, and there are a lot of ways the law can help you do that: non-competes, licensing fees, lawsuits, etc.  But there are plenty of  non-legal ways to protect yourself, and I think comedian Aziz Ansari set a high bar for other artists.

Back in May, my wife and I went to see Aziz live at the Wilbur Theater in Boston.  As we expected, he killed it.  My cheeks hurt from laughing and I had a headache for days.  But Aziz did something unexpectedly impressive.  Before starting his act, he allowed the audience to spend 2-3 minutes taking pictures of him.  He even posed as if he were in the middle of telling a joke or interacting with audience members.  Although it wasn't really a part of the act, it was still quite funny and the crowd ate it up.  If I hadn't been in the cheap seats, I would have taken the opportunity to snap some pics myself.

[I've tried to find a clip of it online, but I've had no such luck.  If memory serves, he also did this at the beginning of his "Dangerously Delicious" concert; for $5.00, you can download the whole thing from his website.  I highly suggest checking it out!  He's hilarious.]

Logistically, it made sense to get the pictures out of the way up front: can you imagine how hard it is to do your act when little flashes are constantly going off in the near distance and your jokes are interrupted by the simulated "click" of a digital camera?  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how brilliant this move actually was.  You see, Aziz knew that people were going to take pictures or video of him anyway, whether there was permission or not.  He understood that if he wanted to cut down on situations where his likeness would be misappropriated, or his act would be surreptitiously filmed without his permission (thus violating his copyright), he would have to control the opportunities in which the audience could make those infringements.

And it worked!  I was sitting in the balcony and I didn't see a single camera or iPhone light up once the photo-op ended.   But leveraging control over the situation was just part of the reason it worked; the other reason was because Aziz framed the situation as an implicit contract with the crowd. "I'll give you a great hour of comedy if you promise not to steal from me."  And because Aziz framed it like that, and then played into it seamlessly (and with humor), he got the audience to live up to their side of a contract they never realized had been made.  It was really amazing.  He did it his way and on his terms, and in so doing, he protected his brand without coming off like a money-hungry a-hole.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA