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Chris Farley's unexpected return -- in an ad campaign

April 01, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Eight years after his drug-related death at age 33, Chris Farley will be making a reappearance in L.A.

The family of the oversized comic has approved the first major commercial use of his image -- on a series of Los Angeles-area billboards advertising a new treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. The first ad will appear Monday on a 20-by-60-foot sign overlooking Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights Boulevard -- near the Chateau Marmont, where Farley's idol, John Belushi, died of a drug overdose in 1982.

The billboard is dominated by a photograph of a smiling and bloated Farley, who weighed 290 pounds when he died, with the slogan, "It wasn't all his fault." Five more billboards are planned mostly around West L.A., and several panels are to be added inside the Burbank airport.

The billboards are for a new drug and alcohol addiction treatment called Prometa, created by the Hythiam company, an upstart West L.A. medical firm.

"We felt it was an effective way of getting people to focus on our message point, because it's unusual to see a celebrity in this fashion," said Terren S. Peizer, Hythiam's chief executive and owner of more than a third of the firm's shares. He said talks are underway with estates of "several" other dead celebrities, whom he declined to identify.

Yet some are questioning the propriety of such a commercial link between a celebrity's death and a specific product, implying that the celebrity's life could somehow have been saved.

"It's especially tasteless to exploit the death for corporate gain," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an advertising watchdog group based in Portland, Ore.

But Farley's brother, Tom Farley, who runs the small Chris Farley Foundation in Madison, Wis., said both the Farley family and Hythiam are interested in building awareness of addiction treatments and encouraging sufferers to get help. Hythiam paid Farley's estate, administered by Farley's mother, $25,000 for the right to use the image -- the first time the family has approved such a commercial use.

"It really wasn't about the money for us," the brother said. He said he was taken with what he sees as the campaign's attempt to "change perceptions. Using Chris to do that has always been something we've done with the foundation, so I liked their mind-set."

Other companies have previously used images of dead celebrities in ad campaigns. In the late '90s, Coors adapted film footage of John Wayne to show him sauntering in for a beer at an Old West saloon, and Fred Astaire danced his posthumous way through a Dirt Devil commercial. More recently, Apple has used Picasso, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. But those campaigns traded on celebrities' accomplishments and didn't link a death so closely with a product, or suggest that its use could have saved a specific life.

Whether building such a campaign crosses a taste threshold "really comes down to the selection of the photo and how they use it in the campaign," said Sanjay Sood, a marketing expert at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. "Lance Armstrong has done a world of good in educating people about his disease [testicular cancer]. That was done in a very positive fashion. This is life and death and the celebrity is gone. I don't know how the public will react when the person is not around to actually speak out."

The Farley billboard targets younger addicts, a demographic in which drug abuse rates are higher, Peizer said. Different celebrities would be used to target older addicts, among whom rates of alcoholism are higher. Hythiam also plans parallel radio and Internet advertising campaigns (including on www.latimes.com).

The campaign, which markets the new Prometa addiction treatment protocol using existing drugs, nutritional supplements and therapy, is part of the pharmaceutical industry's practice of advertising drugs and treatments directly to consumers. The aim: to build demand by encouraging ailing patients to ask their doctors to prescribe specific medications or treatments.

The practice translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues for media companies, particularly television. But marketing experts say it can be an efficient way for a company to get its product known to doctors.

"The thing that makes medical advertising different from regular ads is you have to educate people about some kind of disorder or condition that they don't know they have or realize they have," Sood said. "Celebrities will personalize it for people. The regular education kind of ad programs are in some sense a little generic. [People] can't relate to the science, generally speaking, but they can relate to a person."

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