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White House objects to Ortiz-Obama selfie

David Ortiz took the photo with President Obama when the Red Sox came to the White House on Tuesday to be honored for their 2013 World Series Championship.

jim davis/Globe staff

David Ortiz took the photo with President Obama when the Red Sox came to the White House on Tuesday to be honored for their 2013 World Series Championship.

WASHINGTON — Samsung drew a rebuke from the White House Thursday for use of a widely distributed cellphone photo that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz snapped this week of himself with President Obama.

The president, one of his top aides said, does not wish to be portrayed as an endorser for the electronics firm, which had employed Ortiz as a social media ambassador.

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“As a rule, the White House objects to attempts to use the president’s likeness for commercial purposes,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said during his daily news briefing on Thursday. “And we certainly object in this case.”

Carney, who made the comment between reporters’ questions about Israel-Palestinian negotiations and the administration’s response to shootings in Fort Hood, declined to say whether White House lawyers had been in touch with Samsung about halting its use of the photo.

“I’m not going to get into the counsel’s discussions,” he said.

But he hinted that this was not the first time the White House had been unhappy with the use of the president’s image for commercial purposes.

“It does stand to reason we have objected in the past. We object now,” said Carney, who just two days earlier showed up at the podium proudly wearing his Red Sox cap. “But I’m not going to get into the manner of objection.”

The White House rebuke probably will have scant practical effect, and it appears there is little legal recourse for the administration. Moreover, the explosion of attention on social media — and the subsequent national news coverage — gave Samsung far more notoriety than it could have hoped for from a customary celebrity snapshot.

Samsung did not respond to requests for comment.

From its first days in office, the Obama administration — like past presidential administrations — was concerned about the widespread use of the president’s image. Obama was a national phenomenon, the first black president who ran an inspirational, optimistic campaign. Marketers wanted to cash in and his image was plastered everywhere, from T-shirts to Chia Pets.

Companies even tried to tap into the positive vibe of his election slogan. Southwest Airlines had a “Yes You Can” sale, while Ben and Jerry’s started hawking “Yes Pecan” ice cream — all echoes of the 2008 campaign’s “Yes We Can.”

Michelle Obama objected when Ty Inc. created Beanie Babies with names similar to the First Family’s daughters, Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia (the company renamed the dolls “Marvelous Mariah” and “Sweet Sydney”).

In 2009, the White House explained the president’s concerns about over-commercialization: “Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president.”

A year later, the policy was tested when a sportswear company put up a billboard ad in Times Square showing Obama wearing one of its jackets, with the tagline, “A leader in style.” The Weatherproof Garment Company ad featured an Associated Press photograph that was taken during a presidential trip to China. After a request from the White House lawyers, the company removed the billboard.

Obama has sought to police use of his image during an explosion in the use of social media — it literally ricochets around the Internet on a daily basis. The “selfie’’ Ortiz took with Obama Tuesday was retweeted more than 41,000 times this week. Samsung distributed it on its own account, which has more than 5 million followers.

Ortiz snapped the photo with Obama using a Samsung smartphone while the president was honoring the Red Sox for winning the 2013 World Series.

Ortiz approached Obama to present the nation’s 44th president with a number 44 Red Sox jersey.

“All right, come on, let’s get a good picture here, come on,” Obama said.

“Actually, do you mind if I take my own?” Ortiz responded.

“Oh, he wants to do a selfie,” Obama said.

“Yes, sir,” Ortiz said, as the two came close. “Yes, sir.”

Obama smiled broadly and said, “It’s the Big Papi Selfie. Come on.”

Later, Ortiz tweeted the photo, saying “What an honor! Thanks for the #selfie, @BarackObama.’’

But what seemed like a spontaneous moment at the time later appeared to be more of a marketing ploy. Samsung had contracted with Ortiz to be a social media ambassador, and encouraged him to take photos with his Galaxy Note 3 phone during his White House visit.

Ortiz told the Globe on Thursday that the selfie was his idea alone.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything,” he said. “It just happened in that moment. It was a fun thing. I signed that deal with Samsung a few months ago. They didn’t know what would happen. Nobody did.”

The Red Sox, which are owned by Boston Globe owner and publisher John Henry, also defended Ortiz.

“All of us were thrilled with the spontaneity, warmth, and humor of ‘Big Papi’s Selfie,’” Sam Kennedy, the team’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We didn’t see it coming, and it was unrelated to the club’s good relationship with Samsung. We know that, for years now, long before he became associated with Samsung, David Ortiz has taken selfies with fans, wounded soldiers, and other people he has met along the way, and we hope he continues to act with his big heart and kind spirit.”

Obama’s selfie with Ortiz came a few weeks after talk show host Ellen DeGeneres used a Samsung phone to take a photo of herself and a group of celebrities while she was hosting the Oscars. The photo broke Obama’s Twitter record for most retweets.

“I heard about that,” Obama joked later, when he was a guest on DeGeneres’s show. “I thought it was a pretty cheap stunt myself.”

But Obama’s advisers also understand the power of images and have at times harnessed it to full advantage.

The artist Shepard Fairey designed a poster that became an iconic image for Obama’s 2008 campaign. The poster – which features Obama’s face, and the world “Hope” – was later revealed to have been based on a 2006 Associated Press photograph and triggered lawsuits between Fairey and the AP, eventually resulting in an out-of-court settlement.

Unlike an everyday citizen or the owner of copyrighted material, presidents do not have a strong legal recourse if their image is used commercially, said a specialist in intellectual property.

“On the one hand it is true that his likeness is being used in a commercial way,” said Jonathan Band, who runs his own Washington-based law firm. “On the other hand, given who he is, I think it would be very difficult to survive a First Amendment challenge. If the White House were to say, ‘This is infringing on our publicity rights,’ I think Samsung would have a pretty strong First Amendment defense.”

Meanwhile, on Friday, when the Red Sox play their season opener at Fenway, there will be plenty of opportunities for selfies: the pregame ceremonies, including the presentation of World Series rings, is presented by Samsung.

Peter Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.
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