Most people know actor Lloyd Bridges for starring in the TV show "Sea Hunt." But around Hollywood, he may soon be better known for the role he played Wednesday in a lawsuit that could end up curtailing the use of celebrities in TV commercials.
Bridges, who was the seafaring adventurer Mike Nelson in "Sea Hunt," agreed Wednesday to take unspecified financial responsibility for a commercial in which he heartily endorsed a company that eventually bilked investors out of millions of dollars.
The settlement--which has a confidentiality clause barring disclosure of the terms--was approved Wednesday in Chicago during a brief hearing before a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge.
Bridges was sued by a number of investors who say they sank money into two Illinois companies before the firms filed for bankruptcy in 1986--the investment firm A. J. Obie & Associates, and its companion firm, Diamond Mortgage Corp.
Both were eventually found to be involved in illegal schemes in which investors' money was used to pay off prior investors, giving the illusion of success. Actor George Hamilton, who also made commercials for Diamond Mortgage Corp., was also sued by investors and previously reached an out-of-court settlement.
Bridges could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His New York agent did not return several phone calls.
In 1981, singer Pat Boone was ordered to help pay refunds to unsatisfied users of an acne medicine he endorsed. Boone had previously signed a consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission. The commission said it was the first time a product endorser agreed to be personally accountable for advertising claims.
As a result of these types of cases and settlements, TV viewers may soon see fewer celebrities in commercials for certain companies--like investment or insurance firms--that ask consumers to phone in their orders. And celebrities and Hollywood agencies that link TV and film stars with advertisers say they will now be far more cautious in selecting products to pitch.
"If these suits become as common as personal injury suits, celebrities will not want to go out and do these sorts of commercials," said Noreen Jenney, president of Celebrity Endorsement Network, a Woodland Hills company that links celebrities with advertisers. "Remember, even if they are faultless, the celebrities still have to go out and defend themselves when they're sued."
Even Art Linkletter, one of television's best-known pitchmen, said in an interview Wednesday that, as a result of the Bridges case, he will think harder about what products he endorses.
"Every time I hear about something like this, it reminds me to be even more careful," said Linkletter, who in 1988 appeared in ads for National Home Life Assurance. The ads were ordered off the air by regulators in the state of Washington, who called them false and misleading.
But Linkletter, who now appears in TV spots for special contour chairs, said he has always refused to take part in hard-sell ads that ask people to send in money immediately. "I won't say 'Buy it now,' in commercials," he said.
Linkletter--who insists that he researches all products he endorses--says he doesn't believe that celebrities should be held responsible for problems with the products or companies they endorse.
"The idea of someone suing the endorser is ridiculous," said Linkletter. "Sure, the endorser has a responsibility to try to make sure that everything he is saying is true, but there's no way of knowing that for certain."
One Beverly Hills entertainment attorney said he always insists that he get final approval over the scripts of any commercials that his clients appear in. "Even though a client may be totally enthusiastic about a product, we've become more gun-shy because of the potential for liability," said Steven Katleman, who represents actress Cathy Lee Crosby.
Those who manage the careers of celebrities agree that decisions such as the one in the Bridges case will probably not affect major advertisers such as Coca Cola or Budweiser--which generally include insurance policies that protect the celebrities--but will more likely affect smaller advertisers with lesser-known products.
"If you're doing a Coke commercial, you're not so worried about a rusty nail showing up in a bottle of Coke," said Stan Schneider, who is a business manager for several top entertainers, including Glen Campbell. "But if you're doing an ad for the XYZ Company and you say its beauty cream will make people look younger, you'd better make sure it's not also taking some of their skin off."