Advertising is all pervasive these days. Obnoxiously huge iPhone billboards adorn buildings, pop-up ads attack your eyes every 14 seconds online and you can't walk down the street without having several hundred flyers waved in your face. Indeed, advertising isn't even content to stick to this mortal coil.
For a while now, advertisers have been using images and recreations of dead celebrities to sell their products - often to capitalize on an icon which summed up a particular lifestyle. Although this is not new, the level of realism with which the dead can be resurrected has now reached levels which is both technically impressive and potentially... ethically questionable. Let's take a look at some examples:
Bruce Lee - Johnnie Walker Blue Label Whiskey
To commemorate the 40 year anniversary of the death of Bruce Lee, Johnnie Walker Whiskey created a controversial commercial in which the martial arts star told us to drink Blue Label Whiskey, albeit via ambiguous philosophical quotes.
The commercial drew a lot of criticism at the time, namely because Lee was famously teetotal. Furthermore, the commercial showed him speaking Mandarin, when in reality the Hong Kong star most often spoke Cantonese. This led critics to suggest a dead Hong Kong icon was being used to sell whiskey to mainland China.
Joseph Kahn, director of the ad, stated:
We worked…to create a [computer graphic] Bruce Lee over nine months. Every shot of his head and every detail in there is completely CGI. We got Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, to come aboard and we really picked her brain to make sure that everything was accurate from look to soul. We wanted to be as respectful to the man and the legend as we could.
John Wayne - Coors Light
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Coors decided to use the All-American icon John Wayne to sell Coors Light, despite the fact he had died in 1979. Using redubs and some basic computer wizardry, the Coors marketing team managed to splice him into commercials which played upon his famous roles.
Personally, I would have thought the real John Wayne would drink something a little harder than Coors Light, however Wayne's estate agreed to the use of his image in exchange for a donation to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.
Audrey Hepburn - Galaxy Chocolate
More recently, the Golden Age of Cinema actress Audrey Hepburn returned to our screens to sell us Galaxy chocolate. The commercial, although engendering some controversy for the use of a beloved humanitarian to sell candy, was generally well-received, perhaps because Hepburn was so beautifully revived. Mike McGee, the creative director of the commercial, told The Guardian:
We couldn’t take the easy option of filming a lookalike and disguising mismatched nuances through shadows and camera angles because, first, Audrey was the absolute star of the show and there was no hiding her in a dark corner; second, as the ultimate symbol of beauty, the likelihood of casting a near-perfect match was nil. So we went the whole hog and digitally recreated every millimetre of her face.
Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich - Dior
In 2011, more long deceased screen starlets returned for another commercial, this time selling perfume. Dior felt they need not one, not two, but three dead icons (and one alive one) to successfully sell their product to the masses. Cue Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich all returning to life to knock elbows with Charlize Theron.
Bob Monkhouse - Prostate Research
Although dead celebrities have been revived to sell various products, a few have also returned to life to campaign against the very thing that killed them.
Although not widely known in America, Bob Monkhouse is one of the most beloved comedians to come out of Great Britain. Well known for his cheeky style and use of traditional (if slightly cliché) punchlines, a computer generated Bob Monkhouse would later return to British screens four years after he died. Prior to his death, Monkhouse was known for openly joking about his cancer and the Prostate Research commercial would stay true to this fact.
Tupac Shakur - Coachella 2012
However, dead celebrities have not only been brought back to hawk booze or perfume, legendary rapper 2Pac also returned to the stage to perform 16 years after his death.
A "hologram" of Tupac (it was technically a 2-D video projection) appeared on stage beside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at the Coachella Music Festival in 2012. The projection performance, which was created using an optical illusion known as "Pepper's Ghost," featured Tupac delivering two of his songs, Hail Mary and 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted, as well as interacting with the audience and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on stage.
The performance was generally well-received, and there were even plans for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to tour with a holographic Tupac, however eventually this never materialized. Ed Ulbrich, the man behind the project, stated:
It had to be we were paying tribute. Because if we don’t get it right, we’ve potentially committed an atrocity.
Should Advertisers Use Dead Stars To Sell Their Products?
The use of dead celebrities in modern commercials is a bit of a contentious issue, primarily because companies are using deceased icons to shill brands they may have never endorsed while alive. Furthermore, there are issues with advertisers essentially hijacking fans' genuine appreciation and love of icons in order to sell products.
However, Nick Woodehouse, president and chief marketing officer of Authentic Brands Group (which own Monroe's estate), believes ultimately the public are accepting of such commercials, because they also see these famous stars as "brands" and not necessarily individuals. He stated:
People like Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Muhammed Ali, Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong — they transcend the individual almost… they’re really brands, and I think the public has embraced them as brands. A brand like Johnnie Walker… it’s a lifestyle, and the idea is that Bruce Lee is promoting that lifestyle.
But, of course, not everyone agrees with this. For dedicated fans of those dead stars, the commercials could ultimately insult the memory of the deceased. Regarding the above Bruce Lee commercial, Hong Kong filmmaker Edwin Lee, said:
The animation is, without a doubt, eerily real-life [and looks like] Bruce Lee,. But to attribute all that talent so you can sell alcohol? I find it disgraceful. The man even abstained from alcohol...The fact that he is ‘revived’ in such vivid manner to promote a product [and] lifestyle he never conformed to nor has a choice in this matter is, I feel, immoral and shows you the lowest depravity of mass marketing these days. [And this is] all to break into the Chinese market, hence why we find the Hong Kong cultural icon speaking Mandarin.
For the most part, the response to commercials featuring dead celebrities often concerns how accurately they are portrayed. The above Galaxy commercial was well received primarily because it accurately showed Audrey Hepburn in all her beauty, however a 2007 ConAgra commercial featuring deceased businessman Orville Redenbacher faired less well. The technology to bring Redenbacher back from the dead wasn't quite right, resulting in complaints and accusations that the company were desecrating the dead. Indeed, the late film critic Roger Ebert once called the process of resurrecting dead celebrities for commercials "grave robbing."
Ultimately, it seems the decision to use dead celebrities to sell products is all due to cost and consistency. Firstly, dead stars are simply much cheaper than living ones. You can buy the rights to a deceased star's likeness for about $15,000, meanwhile the very-much-alive David Beckham was paid $30,000,000 to advertise Gilette.
Furthermore, a dead celebrity cannot get involved in a scandal, ruining the image of any products they endorse. For example, after Tiger Wood's infidelities came to light, he was dropped by AT&T and Accenture, costing millions of dollars to everyone involved. As Time points out, "Marilyn Monroe, dead for 51 years, cannot do anything to harm her good name, or the good name of the brands she “endorses.""
Is it right to used deceased stars to advertise products?