Few people know as well as Woody Allen how difficult it is to explain a joke without killing its humor. Ironically, I now find myself in the difficult position of having to make a similar explanation to Mr. Allen, a man who has long been one of my inspirations.
In the spring of 2007, my company American Apparel put up two billboards depicting an image of Woody Allen dressed as a Hasidic Jew, from the movie "Annie Hall," one in New York City and the other in Los Angeles. They were up for less than a week, and when Mr. Allen's representatives asked that we take them down, we did so immediately. Nonetheless, Mr. Allen subsequently filed a lawsuit against American Apparel, demanding $10 million for the unauthorized use of his image.
The image of Mr. Allen in the billboards was from a scene in the film in which the character he plays, Alvy Singer, is an uncomfortable guest at an Easter dinner hosted by the family of his Gentile girlfriend, Annie Hall. Alvy feels so out of place and hopelessly misunderstood at this dinner that Mr. Allen makes a joke of it and shows Alvy imagining himself as a Hasidic Jew.
Along the top of the billboard were the words "Der Haileker Rebbe," written in Hebrew letters. This is Yiddish for "the highest level, extra-holy Rabbi," of which there is only one in the worldwide Hasidic Jewish Lubavitcher community. In Catholic terms, but from a Lubavitcher perspective, it would be like referring to Woody Allen as the Pope. Naturally this was intended as a satirical spoof and not to be taken literally. Posed as a riddle, the purpose of the text was to create a parallel between the sentiment of that moment in the film and what my company and I were experiencing at the time.
At the time of the billboards, my company and I were experiencing the media fallout resulting from a few sexual harassment lawsuits. There were false allegations such as that I had conducted a job interview in my underwear that were sensationalized and exaggerated to the point where my entire persona was vilified. Today, two years later, all the claims in the lawsuits have been completely disproven and yet at the time, some writers characterized me as a rapist and abuser of women, others asserted that I was a bad Jew, and some even stated that I was not fit to run my company. There are no words to express the frustration caused by these gross misperceptions, but this billboard was an attempt to at least make a joke about it.
It is ironic that I have to explain this to Woody Allen, when he has expressed similar frustrations in the past. More than a decade earlier, Woody Allen faced what Newsweek called a "bombardment of tabloid missiles and an outpouring of accusations and counter accusations." Responding to the allegation that he had molested one of his children, Allen explained to 60 Minutes in 1992 that "a gigantic industry has been built on a total non-event. And when I say a total non-event, I mean a total non-event. It wasn't as if I tickled my daughter or something and much has been exaggerated. I am saying [I did] nothing at all....I don't think I can ever get my reputation back..." I related personally to this sentiment and expressed a similar one to the Los Angeles Business Journal, about a year and a half before the billboards went up, explaining to a reporter that my biggest fear was a "worry that I'm being misunderstood... in terms of how society perceives me. People may not understand my philosophy in business. It comes back to the creative process." My intention was to call upon people to see beyond media and lawsuit-inspired scandal, and to consider people for their true value and for their contribution to society.
I feel that the comments of a former friend of Woody Allen, Harvard professor, and famous civil rights lawyer Allan Dershowitz apply to this particular phenomenon: "Well let's remember, we have had presidents... from Jefferson, to Roosevelt, to Kennedy, to Clinton, who have been great presidents... I think we risk losing some of the best people who can run for public office by our obsessive focus on the private lives of public figures." I agree that the increasingly obsessive scrutinization of people's personal lives and their perceived social improprieties has tragically overshadowed the great work of too many artists, scientists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, athletes and politicians, including Woody Allen.
The billboards were designed to inspire dialogue. They were certainly never intended to sell clothes. (And they didn't. We recently hired a market-research company to determine the commercial impact, if any, of the billboards; they found they had no impact on anyone's decision to shop at our stores.) This was not the first time we used a billboard for something other than to promote our products. Before and since we've used them to express social messages--including, for example, our support of immigration reform.
I appreciate Woody Allen's work, but I also appreciate the First Amendment. Let's not forget that Woody Allen himself has referenced many public figures over the course of his long career, often for the purpose of parody, such as Fidel Castro in the movie Bananas. Even Morley Safer, in a 1972 60 Minutes profile of Woody Allen's rising film career, noticed how at home he was "satirizing Freud and Dostoyevsky." I feel that these social references and satires are protected by the First Amendment, as was the case when Larry Flynt used the image of Jerry Falwell, a case which eventually made the Supreme Court. In that case, the majority opinion clearly stated that: "At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty--and thus a good unto itself--but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions."
I have already apologized to Mr. Allen and have tried, through his lawyers, to explain to him the meaning behind the billboards. Although I am sorry that I am in conflict with Mr. Allen, I believe I had the right to express myself in the manner in which I did. Contrary some articles that have been written about this case, I want to preserve Woody Allen's dignity as well as my own to the extent that is possible in a dispute of this kind.
In his deposition, Mr. Allen said that he had never heard of American Apparel or me prior to the billboard. I believe that if Mr. Allen became more familiar with the company, he might appreciate some aspects of American Apparel specifically our commitment to creativity.
In any case, I wish him well, no matter what happens with this case.