I see them everywhere… on my computer, on billboards, in the pages of magazines and on my TV screen… dead celebrities drinking champagne and dancing with vacuum cleaners and driving cars that came out decades after they were rotting in their graves.

It’s easy to see why advertisers want dead people to endorse them. Dead people are safe: they’re known quantities. It’s unlikely an ad campaign will get torpedoed by new revelations or scandals. They’ll never be accused of sexually assaulting a waitress in their hotel room or getting addicted to prescription pain killers. And even if we did find out something juicy and new about James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Steve McQueen, would it hurt their image or just add to their mystique?

Dead celebrity endorsements are big business.

Einstein made $10 Million in 2009, according to Forbes latest annual list of top earning dead celebrities.  All the way back in the 2006 edition of the Forbes list, Corbis image licensing said Albert Einstein was their most requested person. As Tony Soprano might say, “Einstein is a good earner.” Of course, in his case, his earnings go to a good cause. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem gets the cash, including a share from Baby Einstein (Disney), although how would Albert have felt about their recent settlement for misleading claims of jump starting juvenile intelligence? Do you think he’d be proud that being a character in Night at the Museum ended up with him as part of a Happy Meal movie tie-in at McDonald’s?

If you want to hire a dead celebrity like Marilyn Monroe to sell your products, just click on over to the Legends Media Archive. You’ll find advertising-friendly images for dead celebs from John Belushi, Ingrid Bergman and Ty Cobb to Jackie Robinson, Mark Twain and Natalie Wood.

Live celebrities are no better. Some of them have even tarnished their reputations by becoming product hucksters. Are you old enough to remember when Orson Welles did commercials for Paul Masson wine: “We will sell no wine before its time.” More recently, we all had to cringe when Ed McMahon made a Cash4Gold commercial his last role.

But whether you think they sold out or not, it was their choice. Nobody forced them to make those commercials.

The dead can’t do that.

These dead celebrities have been stripped of their most basic right: the right to self-determination, to choose what they do or do not do. They are slaves to the choices of their estates, or of the people who own the copyright on their images.

Some cultures honor their dead. We exploit ours.

There’s nothing illegal about it, although the FTC is considering new regulations concerning celebrity endorsements, according to this blog post by Jonathan Faber, licensing expert and former president of “CMG Worldwide, Inc., whose clients include Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Babe Ruth, Chuck Berry, Princess Diana…”

One of the proposed new rules is that “Advertisers should only use endorsements of celebrities if the advertiser believes that a celebrity subscribes to the views presented.” (Not a problem for the Marilyn Dom Perignon campaign, since it was her favorite champagne, or Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang, which he did famously in the 1968 cop classic, Bullitt.)

But this post isn’t about morality or legality. This post is about marketing.

The point of celebrity endorsement advertising is to make a connection between the celebrity’s persona, the product and the audience. If a celebrity swears by it, that’s good enough for me.

When done wrong, it can backfire. Who would believe that Paris Hilton ever ate at Carl’s Jr. or that Tiger Woods, one of the richest athletes in history and currently the top earning athlete endorser actually drives a Buick.

When done right, it can build a brand. When Brooke Shields said that nothing came between her and her Calvins, Calvin Klein became the must-have designer jean.

But what’s right about using a dead person to endorse your product? Does having David Spade talking to a now dead Chris Farley make you more likely to want to get Direct TV, or less? How many people went out and bought a Dirt Devil because some art director used special effects to force Fred Astaire to dance with one?

I know vampires and zombies are all the rage these days, but can someone please explain to me why anyone thinks a dead celebrity who never used a product can make a convincing sales pitch to the living?

Comments
  1. J. Faber says:

    Without addressing the various points addressed in your article, which is an interesting read, I will speak to the last point you addressed. Part of the appeal to advertisers in using deceased personalities is the opportunity to incorporate beloved or iconic personalities into memorable spots. Advertising executives go to great lengths to develop creative content that will cut through the noise and clutter of advertising overall, Iconic personalities, even those of the deceased, are remarkably effective at accomplishing that objective.

    • jlsimons says:

      Jonathan, thanks for the comment and the insight. The point of this blog is that marketing tactics which may seem questionable frequently make perfect sense when one understands why they were employed by the people who use them, and you certainly qualify as an expert in that regard.

      Your comment also mirrors the experience I had that led me to write this post. I was watching a show I had DVR’d and breezing past the commercials when the ghost of Chris Farley grabbed my attention — as clear an example of the power of a deceased celebrity to cut through the clutter and make a connection. Unfortunately, the connection it made for me was not a positive one. And therein, I think, lies the challenge of using any celebrity: context. I fully agree that showing Marilyn drinking her favorite champagne is utterly contextual, respectful and evocative, cuts through the clutter (who could possibly avoid noticing Marilyn Monroe?) and makes all the right connections.

  2. […] Because it was created with the support of the Cash Estate, I’m sure all the legal bases have been covered. But what about the moral ones? (Including whether his estate is the right authority to make that decision, when its interest in continuing to make money on his creativity may be in conflict with its responsibility to protect the integrity of his legacy? For more on this, see my post, “I See Dead People…”.) […]

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