@dudewithsign is a popular Instagram account that features a tall man in sunglasses holding up a cardboard sign in various public places. Except instead of a serious protest message, the sign has a funny aphorism about modern life, like “Who TF is writing Yelp reviews” or “You can cold plunge without telling everyone.”
The eponymous dude is Seth Phillips, an employee of Jerry Media, a social media marketing agency founded by Elliot Tebele of the popular Instagram meme account @fuckjerry.
Tebele originally came up with the concept of holding up a protest sign with a funny phrase, but only made a few Instagram posts using it. Later on, Phillips reinvigorated the idea and it caught on — the Instagram account now has 8 million followers and does advertisements for brands such as Wingstop, CVS, Dunkin’, and more in which he holds up funny signs related to the brand or product (BuzzFeed once hired Phillips to hold up a custom sign at an event).
FJerry and its other affiliate businesses have filed at least seven lawsuits since November 2022 against brands that allegedly used the Dude With Sign image without permission to post memes to their brand social media accounts.
Brands that were sent lawsuits include Avid, a tech company; All Access Dietetics, a training program for dieticians; Itchy, a psoriasis treatment; BruMate, a thermos cup company; RQ Insurance, and Snak Club. All these brands posted versions of the Dude With Sign meme to their official Instagram accounts with the photo edited so that it appears Phillips was holding a sign with a message about their respective brands.
For example, Snak Club posted him holding a sign saying “Eat more Snak Club” and tagged @dudewithsign in the caption, leading to confusion over whether it was a paid partnership or a sanctioned post.
Most of the lawsuits have been dismissed, most likely after a settlement or deleting the offending post.
“FJerry understands the viral nature of the internet — and loves it when people share its original content for personal, noncommercial purposes,” Jeffrey Lindenbaum, the lawyer for FJerry, told BuzzFeed News. “However, some companies are starting to alter these posts to create their own commercial advertisements. This violates FJerry’s copyright in the images and falsely implies that FJerry and Seth Phillips endorse their brand, which is not OK.”
From a legal standpoint, Jerry Media has a strong copyright infringement case. The brands are using a character and artwork created by Jerry Media and a photo taken by a Jerry Media employee (copyright infringement), and doing so in a way that implies a false endorsement.
“It's easy to say these brands should have known better — and they should have — but using memes and other publicly available images in advertising without proper clearances is such a common practice, you can understand how these mistakes happen,” said Robert Freund, a lawyer who specializes in digital advertising.
“FJerry understands the viral nature of the internet — and loves it when people share its original content for personal, noncommercial purposes.”
While legally these cases might seem straightforward, Jerry Media’s stance on ownership and use of memes hasn’t always been so clear-cut. Ironically, the account whose success led to the creation of Jerry Media, @fuckjerry, was widely criticized for stealing memes and jokes. For years, the @fuckjerry Instagram, and other Jerry Media–owned accounts like @beigecardigan, would post screenshots of funny tweets with no attribution to the person who wrote them. In some cases, the accounts even ran advertisements using tweets they didn’t have permission to use.
In 2019, the backlash came to a head with the #fuckfuckjerry hashtag, with prominent celebrities and comedians like Amy Schumer and John Mulaney encouraging their followers to unfollow the account over shady joke-stealing practices.
Jerry Media was involved in the digital marketing for the ill-fated Fyre Fest and coproduced a Netflix documentary about the disaster. A competing documentary on Hulu painted a less rosy picture of Jerry Media’s role in promoting the event.
Tebele and his brother Maurice launched a tequila brand, Jaja, which also got in trouble for promoting the brand on Instagram using memes of celebrities like Anderson Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Kermit the Frog. Tebele’s argument to Vice News was that no reasonable person would think that the memes were meant as actual celebrity endorsements and that they therefore are parodies, which are considered fair use under the First Amendment. Jaja eventually deleted the fake celebrity memes from its Instagram.