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A term usually used in the context of libel and defamation actions where the standards of proof are higher if the party claiming defamation is a public figure and therefore has to prove defamatory statements were made with actual malice. Harte-Hanks Communications v. Connaughton (1989) 491 U.S. 657, 666-668.
The "public figure" issue is not cut and dried. To begin with, a fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate a person to public figure status, Brown v. Kelly Broadcasting Co. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 711, 745, and, as to those who are not pervasively involved in public affairs, they must have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved" to be considered a "limited purpose" public figure. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) 418 U.S. 323, 345.
A "particularized determination" is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, Bruno & Stillman, Inc. v. Globe Newspaper Co. (1st Cir. 1980) 633 F.2d 583, 589, a standard ensuring that reasonable minds may differ on this subject.
Advertisements themselves are not usually sufficient to transform someone into a public figure. Vegod Corp. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (1979) 25 Cal.3d 763, 770 [a person in the business world advertising his wares does not necessarily become part of an existing public controversy]; Rancho La Costa, Inc. v. Superior Court (1980) 106 Cal.App.3d 646, 661 [advertising is not thrusting oneself into the vortex of a controversy].