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Outlived by Fame and Fortunes

Dead Celebrities as Pitchmen? Advertisers See Them as 'a Safe Bet'

September 11, 1997|DENISE GELLENE

Old celebrities never die because Madison Avenue won't let them.

Advertisers eager for attention increasingly are using advanced technology to bring dead celebrities back as product pitchmen.

Dirt Devil has enlisted Fred Astaire to dance with its vacuum cleaners, while Coors has tapped John Wayne and the cast of the old TV western "Bonanza."

On Sunday, Mercedes-Benz North America becomes the latest advertiser to dust off a dead celebrity with a commercial inspired by "The Ed Sullivan Show." In the ad, the legendary TV personality appears to hype Mercedes.

Dead celebrities allow advertisers to tap into feelings of nostalgia about times spent gathered around the television watching classic shows--an emotion that reverberates with baby boomers in particular.

"It is that warm feeling going back to when we were younger," said Michael Kamins, a professor of advertising at USC.

With dead celebrities--who can no longer get arrested or offend consumers--advertisers know who they are getting. Latching on to celebrities like Chicago Bulls guard Dennis Rodman can prove embarrassing to advertisers.

"With dead celebrities, their qualities are known," said Tom Cordner, creative director of Team One Advertising in El Segundo. "They can't get you in trouble. They're a safe bet."

A pitfall for advertisers is that dead celebrities can overshadow the product they are being used to pitch. That is one reason some advertisers are moving away from using celebrities--dead or alive. Nissan Motors North America has dropped actor Jonathan Pryce from its Infiniti ads, for example.

"Dead celebrities just distract from the overall message," said Connecticut marketing consultant Jack Trout.

Images of Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have long been turning up in ads. Digital technology developed in recent years allows advertisers to manipulate video images of dead celebrities to the point where they appear to hold products being pitched and--with help from voice impersonators--verbally endorse them.

In the case of Mercedes-Benz, technicians at Digital Domain in Venice animated Sullivan's jaw so it appears that he is introducing the Mercedes M-Class sport-utility vehicle. A voice impersonator actually said the words.

In addition, graphic artists altered Sullivan's appearance slightly from the original television clips, removing sideburns and smoothing wrinkles so that images taken from different programs would look alike. The "Ed Sullivan Show" aired for 23 years, ending in 1971.

Mercedes said it decided to use Sullivan because it wanted to make the connection between the acts introduced on his long-running program--such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley--and the Mercedes truck, an important vehicle for the luxury car company.

"I can't imagine a better fit with what we are trying to do than Ed Sullivan," said Mercedes marketing manager Rich Anderman. "He is the epitome of the great variety show host--the perfect guy to make an introduction for us."

The Sullivan estate and the company that owns the "Ed Sullivan Show" gave Mercedes wide latitude to use Sullivan's image. "There were really no restrictions," said Harvey Becker, a vice president at Andrew Solt Productions, the Los Angeles firm that owns the old programs. "They could have morphed him if they wanted to."

Estates of other dead celebrities have granted less leeway. Dirt Devil cannot alter Astaire's image--except to replace movie props such as picture frames and canes with vacuums. John Wayne's son, Michael Wayne, reviews every step of the commercial-making process. In an Adolph Coors Co. beer spot last year, Michael Wayne requested the camera linger on his father as he entered a bar to heighten the drama.

"He decided the audience needed a couple more seconds to drink it in," said Marty Stock, management director at Coors' advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding-Chicago.

For all the technical magic, dead celebrities aren't always successful as pitchmen. Braun Appliance Co. said a spot last winter that used late comedian Jackie Gleason to pitch a hand mixer was "marginally successful" and aired for about two months.

Service Merchandise, a discount chain, last year dropped a series of ads featuring Lucille Ball, Fred Gwynne (as Herman Munster) and Jack Webb (of "Dragnet" fame) nearly as quickly. The company was discouraged in part because Webb's image showed up in an ad for Lotus software around the same time.

Dead celebrities work best in ads when the connection to the product is clear. Advertising critics have questioned the link between Astaire and Dirt Devil vacuums since the campaign was launched on the Super Bowl in January.

"I'm not sure anyone knew what that product was," said Trout.

Royal Appliance Co., the maker of Dirt Devil vacuums, said Astaire's graceful movements enhanced a message that the vacuums are easy to use. The company said the ads are one reason why its sales are up 4%, while industry sales are down 6%.

The ads, approved by Astaire's widow, generated additional controversy when the actor's daughter trashed them. Royal said that the family spat hasn't detracted from the advertising; the company just completed its fifth spot using Astaire.

Observers say that as technology advances, dead celebrities will probably show up more often in advertising, as advertisers look to the past for fresh material.

Said USC's Kamins: "It would not surprise me to see maybe 10 years from now Princess Diana in an ad."

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