This is the first in a two-part series. Part one advises brands on reviving dead celebrities in their marketing strategies, with a framework for evaluating whether or not to go down this path. Part two offers a perspective on how to manage building equity for a dead celebrity” brand.
Resurrecting dead celebrities is not a novel marketing tactic but it’s clearly going through a revival. As Tupac’s ridiculously lifelike computer-generated image at the 2012 Coachella festival showed, it’s becoming easier to manipulate old imagery with modern day technology. So the question is, what should marketers consider as they contemplate using dead celebrities on living brands?
Tupac Shakur’s CGI-rendered likeness from the Coachella festival, 2012
1. Does the celebrity connect with your brand?
My interest in dead celebrity revival was piqued by the intriguing but creepy Galaxy chocolate commercial, which aired with unnerving CGI-rendered images of Audrey Hepburn. When dealing with the deceased, the main question becomes: Is this something the celebrity would do if she or he were alive? More importantly, is it tasteful? As the YouTube commentator RubberWilbur wrote: “Is it just me or is it extremely disrespectful to portray a person who is not alive doing something as if she were alive and chose to do that?” Rubber makes a good point. I’m guessing that as a former UNICEF spokesperson, Hepburn might not want to be shilling candy on national television if she were alive today. Brands should consider that it might not be in their best interest to use a celebrity for something that would seem out of character for that celebrity if she were alive.
2. Will the association be accepted?
Secondly, it is wise to consider the public’s acceptance (or not) of the dead celebrity and brand connection in question. The allure of using a dead star is that an instant emotional connection can be made. But that potential can backfire, too. Take, for example, the 1990s countercultural icon Kurt Cobain who was featured in a 2007 Dr. Martens advertising campaign in the UK. The ad portrayed Cobain in heaven wearing Dr. Martens shoes. This was the first in a series of successive ads featuring dead rock stars—Joe Strummer (The Clash), Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols) and Joey Ramone (The Ramones) followed.
After the launch, the Saatchi & Saatchi copywriter on the campaign explained that “showing them [rock icons] still wearing their Docs in heaven dramatized the boots’ durability perfectly. And, as images, they feel very iconic.” But the ensuing controversy stirred by Cobain’s ex-partner Courtney Love’s very public outcry led Dr. Martens to fire the agency. Needless to say, it was a controversial decision to use those highly revered, didn’t-sell-out-while-they-were-alive-so-it’s-stupid-to-do-so-in-death kind of celebrity in the first place, and one that was not received well.
3. Is the celebrity’s perception what you think it is?
In 2010, the New York Times wrote that “the web means the end of forgetting.” And in 2014, Alec Baldwin threatened to leave New York and the public life because of this reality. Thus, with all of the information out in the world now accessible to the masses, it’s wise to seek professional guidance before deciding to use a dead celebrity (and which one). Luckily there are resources: just use the ‘Dead Q’ study. According to their website: “…Depending on the celebrity, we find that the consumer appeal can actually strengthen or weaken after death and could even change over time… so, every two years we conduct an update to find out which dead celebrities are the most and least appealing in a variety of categories (e.g., actors, comics, musicians, singers).” As a result, you can see the impact of new discoveries unearthed after death on a celebrity’s public perception.
In the end (no pun intended), some famous people are as marketable from the grave as they were alive, and more. And since marketers are not going to stop at death’s door, it is prudent for brands to keep these basic principles in mind to help make the best decision.