The billboard features the fictional Kazakh journalist promoting cannabis sold by Solar Therapeutics with both thumbs up alongside the words “it’s nice!” – globally recognised as the character’s catchphrase.
According to court documents obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, the British actor is seeking damages of at least $9 million (€7.6 million) for alleged copyright infringement and false advertising.
“By use of the billboard, the defendants falsely have conveyed to the public that Mr Baron Cohen has endorsed their products and is affiliated with their business,” writes Baron Cohen’s lawyer in the complaint.
Cannabis is legal in Massachusetts for recreational and medicinal purposes but the drug is still federally illegal. Solar Therapeutics said the billboard was taken down after the company received a cease-and-desist order from Baron Cohen’s representatives. However, it has declined to compensate Baron Cohen for the unauthorised use of his image and intellectual property.
Baron Cohen’s lawyer said the actor had never used cannabis and did not believe the recreational drug was a “healthy choice”, and alleged the company “took a gamble” in using the actor and satirist’s likeness, thinking he would never see it.
He said the star had never advertised any product in the UK or US over fears it would “weaken his credibility as an actor and as a serious social activist”.
Court documents state that Baron is “highly protective of his image and persona”, and outline the “very significant commercial value” of the Borat character and its likeness. According to Baron Cohen’s representatives, he previously turned down $4 million to appear in a car advert as the character.
The Borat character shot to worldwide prominence in 2006 after the release of the controversial mockumentary Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The film grossed $262 million, on an $18 million budget.
The character returned to the screen last year in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, for which Baron Cohen won a best actor award at this year’s Golden Globes. – Guardian