Bette Midler Owns Her Own Voice
The Ford Motor Company hired the advertising agency Young & Rubicam to produce new commercials for it’s cars and trucks using popular songs. They wanted to use Bette Midler’s hit “Do You Wanna Dance?”, an iconic remake of the song made popular by the Beach Boys in 1962 and a hit once again in 1972 in a slower version with Ms. Midler’s distinctive, plaintive voice. When the agency was unable to contract with Midler to use the song, they hired a “sound alike”, Ula Hedwig, who had been a backup singer with Ms. Midler for several years. Ms. Midler sued both Ford and the advertising company, alleging that her “rights of publicity” had been violated.
Midler stated, "I don't do commercials. I don't believe in it. I resent people looking at that commercial and thinking that's me. They think I sold out. It doesn't matter if I win or lose this trial. The damage is done."
Though her suit against Ford was dismissed, on October 31, 1989 the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Midler, deciding that a voice is as distinctive and personal as a face and awarding Ms. Midler $400,000. Her lawyer, Peter Laird, said he hoped ''national advertisers and advertising agencies will think twice in the future before they disregard the rights of artists.''
Sources: “Y & R Ordered to Pay Midler,” New York Times, October 31, 1989; "Bette Midler vs. Ford Motor Company," JewishCurrents.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Bette Midler Owns Her Own Voice." (Viewed on May 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/oct/31/1989/this-week-in-history-bette-midler-owns-her-own-voice>.