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In the first papal visit to the United States in decades, Pope Francis will tour two U.S. cities this fall: Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Because the Pope is a public figure, companies may use his likeness without his permission on virtually any product they want. And what they want can get pretty wild, even as purveyors insist that they are attempting to maintain the dignity of the office.

In Philadelphia, consumers are snapping up t-shirts that mimic the famous scene from Rocky atop the Art Museum steps. The images on the shirts highlight the back of the Pope—identifiable by the mitre on his head—with arms raised and the logo, “The Pope Rocks Philly 2015.” Other shirts range from generic pictures of the Pope’s face together with an image of Liberty Bell to those proclaiming that “The Pope Is My Homeboy.”

Down the street, they also can obtain a six-inch block of mozzarella, carved to resemble Pope Francis’s likeness. Local bars are pouring Pope-themed beers, and a local manufacturer has designed a toaster that burns an image of the Pope’s face onto bread.

 In Washington, DC, the offerings are a little less silly, though consumers can easily access papal-themed bobbleheads, keychains, plush dolls, pins, mugs, rosaries, and bottles of holy water. Even as one retailer asserted that it would never sell “pope soap,” it also noted that it had life-sized cutouts of Pope Francis available for sale.

As these marketing efforts imply, sellers confront a fine, and subjective, line regarding what is appropriate and what is not. While some retailers and consumers consider shirts with irreverent slogans entertaining and fun, others might regard them as irreverent and disrespectful. Adding to the challenge of finding the right options to sell, consumers express different opinions as well. Catholics might insist that Pope Francis bobbleheads are inappropriate, whereas people of other faiths might have less of a problem. Older consumers, who tend to be a bit more conservative, might regard more of these souvenirs as offensive than younger buyers. Even the personality of the Pope himself creates more questions. He is widely seen as less formal than many of his predecessors, with a strong sense of humor. So would he like a bobblehead of himself, or is that just taking it too far?

According to one marketing professor from the University of Pennsylvania, “The pope has transcended religion in some sense,” thus creating a broad market for items bearing his likeness, which means that “There’s some savvy marketers in South Philly saying, ‘Hey, if I put the pope on top of a Philly building, somebody will buy that.’”

Discussion Question:

In this case, what responsibility do sellers have for maintaining the dignity of Pope Francis by selling, or not selling, papal-themed items?


Source: Scott Calvert, “Pope Francis Memorabilia Gets Really Cheesy: Mozzarella, Anyone?” The Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2015