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Raising the Dead : Past Legends Are Being Resurrected in New Gap Ads

August 10, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Dead celebrities are coming back to life on Madison Avenue.

Just when you thought you'd seen the very last ad featuring a black-and-white photo of a deceased icon like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, one of the nation's hippest clothing chains, Gap, is about to unleash a national flurry of print ads that feature images of more than a dozen dead celebrities, from Monroe and Dean to Pablo Picasso and Sammy Davis Jr.

Gap joins a long list of advertisers--from Converse shoes to Nikon cameras--that have linked their images to legends of the past. All of this has resulted in a booming business for specialist photographers and licensing agents who represent estates of dead celebrities.

"These are symbolic heroes of this culture," said Carol Moog, a Bala-Cynwyd, Pa.-based marketing psychologist and consultant. "You have to go back to these cultural icons, because who else can consumers identify with anymore?"

"Why do dead celebrities sell products?" posed Phil Stern, a Los Angeles free-lance photographer whose photo of a dancing Sammy Davis Jr. is being used in a new Gap ad. "I guess it's some form of morbidity."

With dead celebrities--who can't get arrested or further offend the public--advertisers at least know what they're getting for their money. The high risk--and high cost--of latching on to current celebrities like Madonna and Mike Tyson proved to be a bust for Pepsi, which was forced to dump both of them.

"The reputations of these celebrities are a part of history," said Roger Richman, who runs the Beverly Hills-based Roger Richman Agency, which supplied rights to several celebrities used in recent ads. "No embarrassing events can happen that can somehow tarnish the image of the advertiser that uses them."

By linking with a dead legend, "the advertiser is simply trying to link itself with the image that person once had," said Mike Kamins, professor of marketing at USC. "But this is just a secondary association. Dead celebrities can't say they actually use the products."

In its "Who Wears Khakis" campaign, the Gap is hoping that the larger-than-life images of some of America's most famous stars of the past can put some pizazz into traditional khaki pants, which are viewed by some consumers to be about as plain as vanilla.

There's a young, khaki-clad Sammy Davis Jr., jumping in the air, clicking his heels. Isn't that a dashing Rock Hudson strutting his khakis at the seashore? And, yes, even Amelia Earhart is seen decked in khakis before a flight.

Gap executives did not return several phone calls seeking comment. But those who have sold celebrity photographs to the retailer said they were paid from $10,000 to $20,000 for the onetime use of the photos of the American legends. While that might sound like a lot of money, it is many thousands--if not millions--of dollars less than the cost of a major advertiser trying to link up with a living legend, such as a Michael Jackson.

Among other former khaki-wearing celebrities scheduled to appear in upcoming Gap ads: Ernest Hemingway, Norman Rockwell, Jack Kerouac and Humphrey Bogart. One of the few "living" legends whose face will appear in a Gap ad: Gene Kelly.

Photographer Stern, 74, vividly remembers taking the Sammy Davis Jr. photo back in 1949, when Davis was still "several rungs from the top." It was for a magazine article, and they went to the rooftop of a building on Hollywood Boulevard, using the sky as a backdrop.

Advertisers have shown even more interest in another one of Stern's favorite photographic subjects: James Dean. Converse alone paid Stern in excess of $50,000 for the use of a photo taken of Dean in 1955. The photo shows a young Dean, his feet dangling over a chair, wearing a pair of Converse's Jack Purcell sneakers.

That photo became a dream ad for Converse. Just a few months after the print ad began to appear, the company reported that sales of the Jack Purcell line jumped 50%.

Marilyn Monroe will also appear in the upcoming Gap campaign. The rights to the use of her image in khakis was supplied by Beverly Hills agency chief Richman, who represents licensing rights for the estates of 45 celebrities. It has helped place Sigmund Freud's photo in ads for Compaq Computers, Albert Einstein's photo in ads for Nikon cameras and photos of W.C. Fields in displays at Blockbuster Video.

For the photos of Dean, Bogart and Earhart that will also appear in the campaign, the Gap turned to Indianapolis-based Curtis Management Group, which also handles the rights to such legends as Babe Ruth and Fred Astaire.

"These aren't just legends of the year--or of the decade," said Curtis Management President Mark Roester. "These are legends of the century."

Briefly . . .

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