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Embarrassing online ad creates headaches for law firm and profits for video maker

Posted Dec 3, 2013 12:30 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Updated: An Alabama law firm says it’s evaluating its legal options after a controversial video touting the firm’s services appeared on YouTube.

McCutcheon & Hamner says it didn’t finance or authorize the video featuring the character “Wong Fong Su,” and it is sending a cease-and-desist letter to the company that posted it, Above the Law reports. In a prior post, Above the Law criticized the ad's “racist imagery [and] production values of a public access program.” The Raw Story also has a story on the controversy.

The video made by Definitive Television features a white man with a phony Asian accent, closed eyes and a conical hat, who tells viewers that Confucius advised him to consult the law firm’s website after “insurance company try to mess me over.”

A vice president of Definitive Television, Jim DeBerry, tells the ABA Journal he was hired to produce the commercial by an intermediary who claimed to work for the law firm. Now he has no intention to remove the video from his own company’s YouTube account.

DeBerry says Definitive Television retained all intellectual property rights to the video, though documentation is a “loose” procedure. And the controversy may be profitable for his company. After the video was posted on Reddit, he says, his website received 20,000 hits in a 24-hour period, though it typically averages less than 200 views a day. “Our phone rang off the hook, our orders increased,” he tells the ABA Journal. “Controversy creates cash.”

McCutcheon & Hamner lawyer Joel Hamner told Above the Law in a statement that the firm “worked diligently to determine the source of this video” after it appeared on YouTube and traced it to Definitive Television and DeBerry. “We insisted that the video be removed and that he disclose the party that allowed my partner and I to be portrayed in such a negative and misleading light,” the statement said. “Of course, Mr. DeBerry has refused and we are currently investigating our legal options.”

The law firm asserted last week on its Facebook page that its YouTube account was apparently hacked when the commercial was posted there. DeBerry says his company produces “cheesy” commercials, but it’s not in the hacking business, and did not hack into the firm’s account.

DeBerry says his company’s humor may be lowbrow, but it’s not racist. “I apologize if anyone’s offended,” he says. “Everyone has the right to an opinion. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to watch. We have nothing against Asian-Americans.”

In comments posted on YouTube on Wednesday, DeBerry said he would take down the video only if McCutcheon & Hamner will "STOP lying about not ordering the video from us, admit they paid, admit they provided the copy a/k/n script, retract the falsehoods, and apologize to us." He says he has proof the firm ordered the video, which is "the likely reason why they haven't filed a frivolous lawsuit."

Hamner told the ABA Journal in an emotional interview that he has no idea why DeBerry made the video or who authorized it. "What I'm telling you is, what I have repeatedly said is, we don't know why, we don't know who," Hamner says.

"Me personally, I’m getting death threats, my two daughters are upset beyond belief. And we don’t know why," he says. "I don’t know what to say. I know this—the effect and the toll it’s taken on my wife and my children."

Hamner says his law firm in the blue-collar town of Florence, Ala., consists of two partners and one of counsel. Its marketing consists of a couple billboards and phone book ads. It has two videos on its website. One explains the firm's personal injury and workers compensation practice, and another is a client testimonial. The firm doesn't do TV commercials and it doesn't do radio spots.

Hamner says he didn't know about the new video until one of his employees told him that someone had posted a link to it on Facebook. He signs the checks, he said, and he would know if his firm had hired Definitive Television.

"Twenty years, you do everything you can for your clients, you cut away from family time, you do everything you can to take care of clients and their cases," he says. "And then this happens to you."

Updated at 5:15 p.m. to include comments from Hamner. Updated on Dec. 5 to include YouTube comments by DeBerry.

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