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Advertising Must Go On, Even When the Celebrity Spokesman Can't

June 12, 1990|BRUCE HOROVITZ

When Michael Jackson suffered chest pains last week, so did top executives at L.A. Gear.

As it turns out, the singing star's chest pains, which hospitalized him for several days, were the result of an inflammation in his ribs. But when Jackson checked into the hospital, officials from L.A. Gear had to be wondering whether their high-priced spokesman--who had yet to appear in a single commercial for them--would soon be up and moonwalking.

Executives from L.A. Gear declined to comment publicly about Jackson's hospitalization. Yet this is part of the risk any company takes when it pays top dollar for a big-name spokesperson. As can ordinary human beings, celebrity spokespersons can fall ill or die during a corporate campaign. But what happens to a major advertiser when one of its top-name talents is suddenly unable to perform?

Who hasn't seen that striking print ad for American Express that featured Sammy Davis Jr. tap-dancing in the desert? That ad, which ran in the Jan. 1 issue of Time, was part of a long-running campaign that has featured everyone from Jessica Tandy to Paul Newman.

"Sammy Davis Jr. was part of our rotation of portraits when we learned about his illness," said Joan Bonnette, vice president of consumer marketing at American Express. "By the time he was in critical condition," said Bonnette, "our newest campaign had begun."

After he died, American Express ran a newspaper ad that said, "So long, Sammy."

When product spokespersons die or become ill, the most common industry practice is to immediately shelve all ads in which they appear. Talent agents say an increasing number of commercial contracts include clauses that require refunds for advertisers if celebrities die or become ill before completing assignments.

"There are no real good solutions to this kind of thing," said Noreen Jenny, president of Celebrity Endorsement Network, a Hollywood Hills firm that represents advertisers seeking celebrity spokespersons. "But if the hired talent can't perform the work, the money should go back to the advertiser."

Los Angeles talent agent Vic Sutton said he tries to avoid so-called pay-back contracts for his clients and instead seeks contracts that can only withhold future payments. "Imagine if you're a family going through trauma, and the advertiser comes to you for money back," Sutton said.

Sometimes a spokesperson's illness can turn an advertiser's marketing plan on its head.

Just months after James Garner underwent bypass surgery, he was dropped as a spokesman by both Mazda Motor Corp. and the Beef Industry Council. But for Arthur Ashe, a heart attack that the tennis star suffered 11 years ago actually led to a contract years later promoting Bufferin.

Last July, Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and dozens of other cartoon characters, died. Shortly before his death, he had filmed an ad for Oldsmobile with his son Noel that featured the two of them and some cartoon characters in a car. At the end of the ad, Mel Blanc signed off with the familiar, but suddenly inappropriate, "That's all, folks."

Even though Oldsmobile re-made the ad without Mel Blanc and changed the ending, the commercial never aired. But it wasn't a question of taste, said Gus Buenz, director of public relations at Oldsmobile. "That ad was for Cutlass Sierra, which was already selling well," Buenz said. "We had other new vehicles coming out that we wanted to promote."

Few celebrities were as closely associated with any product as was actor Lorne Greene with the dog food, Alpo. The former star of the TV series "Bonanza" was Alpo's top spokesman for 13 years until shortly before his death in late 1987.

When he died, Alpo already had a backup campaign in the works. "We always have a backup campaign ready," said John Goodchild, president of Weightman Advertising, the Philadelphia agency that creates ads for Alpo. The next campaign didn't feature any celebrities. "We didn't want to look like we'd gone from one hired gun to another," Goodchild said.

Perhaps one of the most successful "hired guns" in West Coast advertising was John Wayne, the star of a long-running ad campaign for Great Western Bank. Wayne was already ailing when the bank hired him as spokesman in the mid-1970s, but executives felt that Wayne would bolster the bank's reputation.

When Wayne died of cancer less than four years later, "we really had a problem," said Clifford A. Miller, executive vice president of Great Western Financial Corp. "He was such a powerful figure that we finally decided it would not be fair to ask anyone to step into his shoes." Instead, the bank ran new ads that used a series of celebrities, including Glenn Ford and Barbara Stanwyck. It eventually settled on Dennis Weaver as its sole spokesman.

But in celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1986, Great Western opted to once again air a few of the John Wayne commercials as a sort of tribute. "We only ran them for 30 days," Miller said. "But we got absolutely positive response."

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