As the direct-marketing industry copes with the sudden death of pitchman Billy Mays, it's worth considering the fragile relationship between celebrity endorsement and death. In Mays's case, his premature departure should probably have minimal effect on OxiClean and Orange Glo. Similarly, with gold prices high and credit ratings low, chances are that Cash 4 Gold and FreeCreditReport.com will keep chugging along, even without recent spokesman Ed McMahon.
Unexpected deaths happen periodically. The passing of New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson (pictured) -- in a plane crash, 30 years ago this summer -- didn't seem to harm the long-term sales of Williams' 'Lectric Shave. But for some companies, the death of a salesman is a tough blow.The demise of Wendy's founder Dave Thomas was devastating to the fast-food company. Thomas's homey, friendly ads put a face on Wendy's for millions of customers, and the chain has cycled through a series of "Mr. Wendy" spots and animated commercials but still has not found a suitable replacement.
Perhaps the most disturbing pitchman death was that of Orville Redenbacher, in 1995. The star of several commercials in the 1980s and 1990s -- including this classic split-screen execution -- Redenbacher used to have a hard time convincing fans that he was a company founder, not an actor. A graduate of Purdue University in Indiana, Redenbacher had a degree in agronomy, and his popcorn represented the culmination of 20 years of research. Orville Redenbacher remains the top U.S. popcorn brand, despite its inability to develop a solid campaign.
But in 2007, the company resurrected its founder for a creepy commercial. A computer-generated, strangely androgynous Redenbacher sported an MP3 player and brandished a bag of microwave popcorn in a spot that horrified numerous cultural critics. "Grandpa would go for it," insisted Redenbacher's grandson (who appeared with his dead patriarch in many ads). "This is a way to honor his legacy."
Of course, in some ad campaigns, the pitchman's death was almost the entire point. After Yul Brynner died of lung cancer in 1985, his posthumous anti-smoking campaign added heft to his simple message. While "don't smoke" is a mild message, but it gets added heft when it comes from a man who's just died of lung cancer. The same goes for John Wayne's promos for the American Cancer Society.
The same cannot be said of James Dean, whose 1955 safe driving public-service announcement is listless, distracted, and borderline excruciating. Dean's clear contempt for his message was borne out a month later, when he killed himself in a car crash.
Exploitation of dead pitchmen is sometimes an accidental side effect of PSAs and commercials, but in some cases, exploitation is exactly the point. Diet Coke ran a 1992 spot that inserted creepily colorized clips of 1940's stars into a contemporary nightclub setting; another featured Paula Abdul dancing with Gene Kelly and Groucho Marx. While fun to watch, these ads bothered enough consumers to inspire laws protecting the likeness rights of dead celebrities.
Those laws later came in handy for former rock royalty. In 2007, advertising powerhouse Saatchi & Saachi devised a campaign for AirWair's Doc Martens boots, depicting various musical icons wearing the brand from their perches in heavenly clouds. The estates of Clash lead singer Joe Strummer and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious did not comment on the campaign, but the families of Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain were infuriated. Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, said, "I never would have approved this ad, as Joey never wore these shoes. And [...] the fact that he was Jewish, and this ad is not exactly kosher, makes it that much more inappropriate, inconsiderate, and contemptible." AirWair pulled the ads and swiftly fired Saatchi.
While that debacle demonstrates the dangers of plumbing the graveyard for pitchmen, it probably won't stop what appears to be a very lucrative trend. With OxiClean and Cash4Gold look for new pitchmen to replace their spokesmen, one wonders how long the statute of limitations on a likeness can be applied. After all, Orson Welles promised that Paul Masson would sell no wine before its time -- but he never said he wouldn't sell it after his time was up.
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