The Return of the Dead to Advertise Beyond the Grave

by M-Gillies

Ford featured Steve McQueen in its campaign for the new Mustang based on his legendary movie, "Bullitt". In it he drove a Ford Mustang GT 390 that he had tried to purchase when the movie was completed but the owner wouldn't part with it.

Zombies for the last two decades have been growing increasingly popular. From film and television shows to video games and comic books, the idea of zombies is something of an undying trend. And why shouldn’t it be? Zombies are neat – they are quintessentially immortal; kind of like some of our most cherished and iconic celebrities. Just because they have died, doesn’t mean they aren’t still living on while eating away at our brains.

In fact, it was during the mid-90s and well into the new millennium that product endorsement wasn’t simply going to be promoted by those living and breathing working stiffs alone. In 1997, Dirt Devil showcased their creative ingenuity when they aired a commercial that showcased Fred Astaire dancing with one of their vacuum cleaners. While some people may not know who Astaire is, his prolific 76-year career in Hollywood was garnered with the success of his ability to sing, dance and act his way into the American Film Institutes as the Greatest Male Star of All Time.

However, the thing with Astaire during his dance number routine with the Dirt Devils vacuum cleaner is, he had already been dead for a decade. This led The Simpson’s to reference the event with Homer remarking, “You people (celebrities) need to realize that the public owns you for life! And after you’re dead, you’ll all be in commercials dancing with vacuum cleaners.”

And so it was, the doors suddenly opened for deceased celebrities looking to continue their work in the field that earned them their fame.

With the continuous advancements in computer technology giving producers the ability to manipulate images and create breathtaking effects in film and television, digital resurrection soon became a leader in how deceased celebrities have been able to endorse numerous products well after they had been dead and buried.

In 2005, Volkswagen launched a British commercial featuring Gene Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996) using footage from Singing in the Rain. In 2006, for their Gap is Black campaign, Gap had Audrey Hepburn (May 4, 1929 – January 20, 1993) performing a dance number taken from the film Funny Face, set to AC/DC’s Back in Black song with a tagline reading “Its Back – The Skinny Black Pant”. Even the King of Cool, Steve McQueen (March 24, 1930-November 7, 1980) had an appearance when his likeness was used in a 2005 commercial for Mustang.

Sure, technology has pushed the boundaries of digital manipulation, but even in a time when digital technology was still reaching its full potential, these ghostly celebrity cameos could be seen as early as 1992, when Paula Abdul appeared alongside a young Kelly and Groucho Marx (October 2, 1890 – August 19, 1977) in a dance number for diet Coke, which was subsequently poured in a glass for her by the likes of Cary Grant (January 18, 1904 – November 29, 1986).

While the use of dead celebrities was once very popular, many people have found that the exploitive use of deceased celebrities is particularly tasteless and ghoulish at best. “I don’t have a problem with artistic quotation of moving images, as in Forrest Gump, because there the intent is obvious and can be justified by the artistic license of the new artist. Using JFK in Gump is the movie equivalent of Warhol’s Marilyn portraits,” Film Critic Roger Ebert once said. “But in the case of TV commercials, unless a deceased star has specifically granted permission for this use, I think it is akin to grave robbery. To sell an image – i.e. the likeness and name – might be within the legitimate rights of an estate. But to recycle an actor’s actual work, their acting, is shameful.”

However, negative reaction to the use of deceased celebrities hasn’t stopped American Idol. In 2007, during its sixth season, Celine Dion was joined on stage with a 33 year-old Elvis Presley in a duet performing the song If I Can Dream. While the footages of Presley was taken from the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special, the illusion of Elvis appearing onstage was created through rotoscoping.

Though marketing dead celebrity brands has proven to be advantageous, particularly when comparing the value of such celebrity icons as Presley, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, there are still some technical and legal restrictions to using the image and publicity rights of dead celebrities for endorsement and advertorial campaigns. However, for most part, the best thing when using a dead celebrity to endorse a product is to keep in mind that the celebrity has to have a brand equity to assist in improving the reputation of a product.

Two particular examples of this are McQueen’s appearance in the Mustang commercial and Apple’s Think Different campaign in the 90s, which featured relevant cultural icons such as Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock and others to restore Apple’s decaying reputation and create an identity of being revolutionary.

Regardless of whether or not these exhumed celebrities continue to find success long after their deaths, it seems for now, they’re still finding work and earning a considerable amount of buck for their post-mortem performances.

View Videos:

Steve McQueen Mustang Commercial | YouTube

Singing in the Rain VW Commercial | YouTube

Paula Abdul Diet Coke | YouTube

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