Celebrity Endorsements: Some Dead Men Do Tell Tales    by Marjorie Dorfman

Have you noticed many famous dead people are still around and they are trying to sell us things? If you think they should stay dead and be left alone, please read on.

It's too cold out to be near Easter, isn't it? Well, be that as it may, resurrection time is closer than just around the corner; it's here. I speak not of religious miracles, but rather of the deluge of television commercials involving people who have, to the best of my knowledge, passed through to the other side of the sod. This resurgence has been motivated by a combination of corporate ambition, celebrity obsession and digital technology. Better not read on if you are in the entertainment or sports industry and frustrated by Madison Avenue's indifference to your endorsement potential. The only possibilities offered here require that you first be dead! If that isn't grounds for suicide or at least a claim for not being an equal opportunity employer, I'll eat my hat; that is, when I can afford to buy my next one!

What is going on here anyway? A while ago, I couldn't sleep and popped on the television. While channel surfing, I found Mr. Fred Astaire, not puttin' on the ritz as I love to see him, but prancing the light fantastic with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. I don't know which movie featured this unique pas de deux, but I do remember the dance as one where his partner was neither the svelte Ginger Rogers nor the lovely Rita Hayworth. It was, alas, a rather long broom. Mr. Astaire could render a touch of class to anything, even a roll of toilet paper. He is a beloved icon of charm and grace, frozen in time and in our hearts. It is that which is at the heart of the problem. Something smells now about his image that's reminiscent of a fish in Denmark or relatives that stay more than three days, or something like that. Some quality has been tarnished and will never be the same again.

If Fred Astaire isn't an important enough icon to defile, consider the more recent commercial run by a French telecommunications company that features Lou Gehrig. (I will not mention the name because I have some stock in the company and one hundredth of one thousandth of a percent of shame is still shame, isn't it?) "Iron Man" Lou Gehrig's poignant departure from the world of baseball due to a fatal illness which would later bear his name is transformed before our very eyes into tawdry, commercial schlock! To quote Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media, "while dead baseball players can no longer hit, they still can pitch." What's wrong with the baseball heroes of today that still live and breathe and walk our city streets? Why utilize the image of a man who hasn't even been breathing for many, many years?

John Wayne too has been seen again on this side the sod, or at least heard. In a Coors Light commercial his famous voice clears the question "whose beer is this?" "It's my beer, sergeant!" challenges the Duke. Well, I know for a fact that Mr. Wayne hasn't been drinking much of anything for more than two decades. No matter how much his estate may or may not be making, he should be able to rest in peace so that his fans can remember him wrapped in the sacred cellophane of his celebrity.

The voices of Marvin Gaye and Bobby Darin also sail above the airwaves of the dead and into the realm of the living. "Let's Get It On", Gaye's hit from the early 1970s, sells cheese to a bunch of school children opening their lunch boxes and Mr. Darin sings "More" to a crowd outside a linen store offering discounts. Don't living celebrities need work too? I've spotted many of them munching on doughnuts and even plugging some good causes. Why grave rob when there's still the William Morris agency?

The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind, as Bob Dylan used to say. It lies in the offer. Dead celebrities don't argue, demand raises or give photographers a hard time. The fact that they don't even breathe is another matter entirely for CMG, the talent agency that granted the license to the French telemarketing company to use Lou Gehrig's image. This same company also featured in an earlier ad the "I Have A Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The defining moment in America's civil rights movement is, you guessed it, instant schlock! CMG must walk a very fine line between protecting the images of its late clientele and exploiting them. Public interest groups, such as Commercial Alert and its executive director, Gary Ruskin, feel that the use of these icons for commercial purposes is a travesty.

Is anything sacred and beyond the greedy grasp of commercialism? Greg Ponticello, writer for Comedyzine, theorizes that nothing and no one really is. He suggests that maybe even Jesus should be advertising for Cross Pens, promising a cross that is "easy to bear!" He makes an important point. Where is the line drawn between those who can be exploited and those who can't? Who isn't and can never be for sale? Albert Einstein can be seen advertising Apple computers and poor Ghandi has come from back from the dead to say a word or two about them as well. Come on now. Who's next? Mother Theresa endorsing chocolate chip cookies? Although it may be difficult to gauge the level of outrage a commercial will cause, some imagery must be sacrosanct and above commercial exploitation.

I suppose that the real truth in all of this lies in the fact that even in death we are all not equal. Who would pay any attention to just any old run-of-the-mill dead person swigging down a beer or selling computers or vacuum cleaners? It is a sad truth though because it's not bad enough that almost everything in our culture is already for sale, now everyone in it is as well! What does this say for the future of America? I'm not sure. I only know that rising from the dead isn't my thing (I don't like zombie movies and I have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning.) Dead celebrities turn me off, not because of what they were in life but for what the thirst for money in this world has made them. Someone please stop the flow of this commercial tide before it's too late and we all drown in the undertow. Let the dead and their memories rest in peace or pieces, whatever the case may be.

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Copyright 2002