Under the Influence

Nobody's Dead Anymore: <br />Marketing Deceased Celebrities

This week on Under The Influence, we look at Marketing Dead Celebrities. It's become a $2 billion dollar industry. The marketing of dead celebrities not only attracts lots of big brands, but lots of controversy. We'll trace the use of dead celebrities in advertising, we'll analyze "Dead Q Scores," we'll list the top-grossing dead celebrities, we'll tell some fascinating...

This week on Under The Influence, we look at Marketing Dead Celebrities.

It's become a $2 billion dollar industry. The marketing of dead celebrities not only attracts lots of big brands, but lots of controversy. We'll trace the use of dead celebrities in advertising, we'll analyze "Dead Q Scores," we'll list the top-grossing dead celebrities, we'll tell some fascinating stories about ads that featured Audrey Hepburn, Michael Jackson, Fred Astaire, Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe - and how their families felt about those commercials.

Hope you join us. It's a brave new world, now that nobody's dead anymore.

Twenty-six miles from Palm Springs, in Indio, California, a large event is staged every year.

It's called the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. 

Started in 1999, it's a big two-weekend gathering that draws over 80,000 people a day. Nearly 180 musical acts perform, and while the festival has hosted big acts like Paul McCartney, Madonna and Foo Fighters, it's  also an important showcase for emerging artists. 

Over the years, the festival has had many stand-out performances. But none was more famous than one particular event that occurred last year. 

During the closing night concert, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were joined onstage by hip-hop legend, Tupac Shakur. (Warning: Explicit language) 

Tupac appears at Coachella 15 years after his death.
Source: YouTube

You may not think that's so earth-shattering. 

Except that Tupac died fifteen years ago.

He appeared as a life-sized hologram, strutting across the stage, and stunned the crowd by yelling out, "What's up, Coachella?" 

He not only sang and danced with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, he interacted with them. 

The jaw-dropping spectacle was created by the same visual effects company that had produced the film,  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Because of remarkable advances in computer imagery and audio, they were able to create fresh movements and new dialogue. 

As a company spokesperson later pointed out, the Tupac hologram  wasn't found footage, it wasn't from an existing archival clip - it was  anillusion. And it completely wowed the Coachella crowd. 

It was so astonishing, as a matter of fact, it makes you wonder if a deceased musician could now - theoretically - go out on tour. 

Dead celebrities have been very busy lately. 

The advertising industry alone has been resurrecting them for over twenty years now. The use of deceased stars holds a great allure for advertisers. The celebrities remain famous, they never get into trouble, and their good looks are frozen in time. 

And now with the leaps in technology, they can be made to do - and say - anything. 

As a marketing strategy, they attract a lot of money, a lot of attention, and lots of controversy. 

It's a brand new world, now that nobody's dead anymore.

At a Hollywood party on the evening of August 16th, 1977, word spread that Elvis had just died at his Graceland mansion in Memphis. 

Amid the shock, one talent agent broke the silence by saying, "Good career move." 

As Time Magazine later noted, rarely has sarcasm been so prophetic - as many celebrities become  more valuable in memory than they were in real life. 

The marketing of dead celebrities has become big business. Some estimates put licensing and royalty figures at an astounding $2.25 billion annually.

In 2008, CKX Inc, a U.S. entertainment firm, paid $100 million for an 85% stake in the Elvis Presley estate. Last year, Marilyn Monroe's image was purchased for a rumoured $20-$30 million by a Canadian marketing firm called Authentic Brands Group. 

There is even a term for dead  celebs who earn big annual revenues: 

They're called "delebs." 

Forbes publishes an annual list of the top earning dead celebrities - and some of them may surprise you: 

In the number one spot, earning a staggering $210 million last year - was Elizabeth Taylor.

Liz Taylor.jpeg
Liz tops the list with $210 million in earnings since passing away over two years ago.
Source: mubi.com

Most of that came from a one-time auction of her possessions, which raked in over $180 million. But without those auction results, she won't beat out the number two dead celebrity next year. 

That deleb... is Michael Jackson. 

michael-jackson .jpeg
The King of Pop raked in $145 million this year.
Source: clashmusic.com

The King of Pop, who died in 2009, earned $145 million last year, $90 million dollars more than our number three entry: 

Elvis Presley.

The King is doing A-okay in the afterlife.
Source: telegraph.co.uk

The King of Rock 'n Roll shook up $55 million in revenue. 

Deleb number four may surprise you. It's Charles Schultz.

Charles Shultz.jpeg
Charles Schultz is not making peanuts.
Source: cbc.ca

The Peanuts creator earned $37 million, a full sixty years after his comic strip was first published. 

Number five is Bob Marley. 

Get up, stand up, make $37 million.
Source: lastfm.com

The reggae star is very diversified in his post-life holdings, with a beverage company that sells "Marley Mellow Mood" relaxation drinks, and another that sells headphones and speakers. 

The leader of the Beatles comes in at number six, earning $12 million, with Yoko at the steering wheel. 

While it can't buy you love, Lennon earned a paycheck of $12 million 30 years after his death.
Source: owldolatrous.com

Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein both earned $10 million last year.

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but Monroe still earns more than $10 million per year - 50 years after her death.
Source: biography.com

Monroe died in 1962. Mr. Einstein bequeathed his estate to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when he died in 1955. 

Earning $10 million almost 60 years after you die is genius.
Source: siliconindia.com

While clucks come from chickens and quacks come from ducks, the next person on our list took home $9 million bucks. Yes, it's Dr. Seus, who died in 1991. 

The doctor is in - to the tune of $9 million dollars annually.
Source: technorati.com

And rounding out the list of top earning dead celebrities was the King of Cool, Steve McQueen.

The King of Cool pulled in $8 million dollars last year.
Source: thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com

Whose real name was Terry - I'll let you draw your own conclusion there. He earned $8 million. 

Clearly, the business of marketing dead celebrities is a lucrative one.

One of the first advertisers to employ dead celebrities was Diet Coke back in 1991. The TV commercial was staged in a hot nightclub, with Elton John leading the band. 

Diet Coke Commercial circa 1991 - One of the first uses of dead celebrities.
Source: YouTube

Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong were all incorporated using old movie and TV clips - and the technique opened the doors to a whole new casting conversation. 

Yes, now celebrities were wanted, dead or alive. 

But it's not without its controversies. 

Earlier this year, a new commercial for Galaxy Chocolate came out in the UK. The bar is made by Mars - hence the name - Galaxy. 

The commercial was titled,  Chauffeur and starred a young Audrey Hepburn. 

It is set on Italy's Amalfi Coast in the 1950s. Hepburn is on a bus, which has been stopped in its tracks by an overturned fruit cart. 

Audrey Hepburn is resurrected for Galaxy Chocolates.
Source: YouTube

The techniques used in this commercial were groundbreaking. The 3D team used an extensive archive of over 70 facial movements, and built a software model of Hepburn using the star's entire film catalogue, plus all available press and documentary photographs. Every shot in the ad entailed full computer-graphic face replacement. 

The result is quite extraordinary - considering none of it was a clip from any existing Hepburn movie. In other words, they gave Audrey Hepburn a brand new script. 

It was not unlike when Orville Redenbacher was brought back from the dead for a popcorn commercial in 2007. Only the computer imagery used with Hepburn was light-years ahead. 


Good old Orville pops back to life in a posthumous commercial.
Source: YouTube

While the Galaxy Chocolate commercial was criticized by many, it was approved by Hepburn's two sons - but both had different reasons for granting the permission. 

For her son Sean, it was the nostalgic memories he had of shopping for candy with his mother. Who, he says, was a big fan of Mars bars. 

For her other son, Luca, it was his mother's personal history. Audrey's teenaged years were spent in Nazi-occupied Holland, during the second World War. He recounts that the first real piece of food given to her by the liberating army was chocolate. To her, chocolate was the taste of freedom. 

The motivations of family when granting the marketing rights to deceased celebrities is always revealing. 

It's a delicate and difficult subject - because even though dead celebrities are highly marketable, even though they are still in demand, and even if they may have a long history of appearing in commercials - one debatable aspect remains: 

Delebs can't give their approval.

Would Audrey Hepburn have said yes to a chocolate commercial? Would James Cagney have said yes to Diet Coke? Would Humphrey Bogart have said yes to... furniture? 

Can we interest you in some Humphrey Bogart-inspired furniture, perhaps?
Source: YouTube

While dead celebrities can't give their approval, they also can't cause trouble. 

When Cybil Shepard endorsed L'Oreal, then later admitted she didn't dye her hair, it was a PR problem for the advertiser. 
cybil shepard.jpeg
Unlike almost everyone else on this page, Cybil didn't dye.
Source: fashion.telegraph.co.uk

When Tiger Woods underperforms, so do the Nike shoes he endorses. 

But delebs are absolutely dependable. 

When advertisers consider using a dead celebrity in their marketing, one of the first things they consult is the "Dead Q Score." 

A "Q" Score is a way to evaluate a celebrity's ongoing marketability and value. A brand's typical customers are surveyed and asked two questions: One: How familiar they are with the celebrity, and Two: How much they like them. From those two answers, a final "Q" score is blended and tallied. The  living celebrity with the highest Q score of all time, by the way... is Bill Cosby. 

The most beloved living celebrity of all time.
Source: biography.com

And in the case of a deceased celebrity, a "Dead Q" score is computed. 

Audrey Hepburn, for example, had a very high Dead Q Score, and ranked behind only Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn. 

Another deleb with a high Q score recently made a  re-appearance for a familiar advertiser: 

Michael Jackson wows Pepsi drinkers back in 1984.
Source: YouTube

Jackson died in 2009. It has been said it was after the filming of the infamous Pepsi commercial - where his hair caught on fire - that he became addicted to painkillers. And that addiction would, in part, contribute to his death many years later. 

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jackson's ad that featured his song,  Bad, Pepsi inked a partnership with Jackson's estate to not only produce one billion commemorative Pepsi cans featuring the singer, but to also create a 15-second TV commercial with footage of Jackson dancing - directed by Canadian Marco Brambilla: 

Michael Jackson is featured in a new Pepsi ad four years after his death.
Source: YouTube

It's interesting to note that when Michael Jackson died, he was over $500 million in debt. But according to Forbes, with record sales and marketing license income, Jackson's post-mortem earnings have now wiped the slate clean. 

When UK ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi created an ad for Dr. Marten's boots in 2007, it showed late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain sitting on a cloud in heaven, wearing the boots:

Kurt Cobain.jpeg
Kurt Cobain sports Dr. Marten's inside the Pearly Gates.
Source: fotoblog.com

Even though he was known to wear the boots when he was alive, Cobain's wife, Courtney Love, was furious. The CEO of Dr. Marten's pulled the ads, apologised to Love, and fired his ad agency. 

There may have been a reason why Courtney Love just got mad, but didn't sue. There is no protection for dead celebrities in Britain. Their rights die with them. 

The law is a very interesting aspect of marketing dead celebrities.

In Canada, a dead celebrity's rights are protected for 14 years after death. 

In the U.S. - it varies from state to state. New York, for example, offers no protection to dead celebrities. 

California, on the other hand, offers the most. And it all started with one legal case in particular. 

In the mid 60s, the widow and son of the horror star Bela Lugosi took Universal Studios to court. The Lugosi estate wanted to prevent Universal from pocketing all the merchandise profits based on Lugosi's 1930s Dracula films. 

Bela Lugosi's most famous role, defining Dracula for all time.
Source: fanpop.com

After an 11-year lawsuit, the Lugosi's failed to win the case, but it inspired other estates to pick up the fight. 

Eventually, California introduced the Celebrities Rights Act in 1985, creating publicity protection for deceased celebrities which lasted for 70 years after their death. Those rights could also be bequeathed to their heirs. But it had a caveat: Those rights were only available to celebrities who died  after 1985. 

It made sense that California would have the most comprehensive dead celebrity rights in the country, having the most celebrities per square inch. 

Which led to a very interesting case with one of its most famous stars. 

Several well-known photographers had snapped very famous photographs of Marilyn Monroe over the years. 
Marilyn monroe.jpeg
Maybe the most famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe, standing over a New York subway grate.
Source: cbc.ca

At that time, the Monroe estate was owned 75% by Monroe's acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, and 25% by her psychoanalyst. In 1996, the estate hired a management company to control licensing for Monroe's rights and image - including all photographs. 

In a series of lawsuits, the families of the photographers challenged the estate's right to control Monroe's image. They were tired of paying licensing fees for the use of their own property. Plus, because she had died in 1962, it pre-dated the California Celebrity Rights Act. 

That's when Hollywood raced to fast-track a new bill. To protect Monroe and other celebrities, it allowed any star who had died since January  1938 to transfer their publicity rights to their heirs. The legislation was quickly signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

But that's when it got interesting. 

It turns out that when Marilyn Monroe died, her estate fought for years to prove she was a  New York resident in order to  avoid paying California state income tax on residuals she earned from her many movies. They argued her New York apartment was her primary home, and her LA house was just used when she was filming. As a matter of fact, Monroe's will was probated in New York. 

But, you can't have it both ways. 

Because New York  doesn't recognize post-mortem celebrity rights, the photographers won the case. 

But maybe the one story that sums up the controversial use of dead celebrities was triggered by a campaign that aired during the Super Bowl in 1997.

A series of three fifteen-second ads were launched, featuring Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. 

Footage was taken from two Fred Astaire movies, and the vacuum cleaner was inserted as his dancing partner: 


Fred may be dead, but he was hired to breathe some life back into vacuum cleaners.
Source: YouTube

In the footage from the movie,  Royal Wedding, Astaire is really dancing with a hat rack, but through clever computer graphic techniques, the rack was replaced with the Dirt Devil. 

Fred Astaire's widow, Robin, granted the permission for the campaign. It was the first time she had ever let an advertiser use her husband's image. 

She felt strongly the commercials were "artistically suitable" - and that Fred had often danced with props in his movies, from mops to brooms to... well, hat racks. Mrs. Astaire also felt no one understood his wishes more clearly when it came to his image than she did. 

That wasn't Fred Astaire's first blush with advertisers, either. His 1930s radio show was sponsored by the Packard Motor Company. 

Fred also did commercials in his later years - like this one for Western Airlines, which he starred in with his old dancing pal, Gene Kelly: 

Gene Kelly bumps into Fred Astaire in an airline commercial.
Source: YouTube

Fred Astaire's son, Fred Jr., supported Robin in her decision to sign the deal with Dirt Devil. 

However, Fred's daughter, Ava felt differently. She stated publically she was saddened that - after her father's wonderful career - he was, quote, "sold to the devil - Dirt Devil." 

But, there was  another reason why Robin Astaire licensed her late husband's image to the vacuum cleaner company. 

She had been fighting to protect his image for years, and took many companies to court for selling unauthorized merchandise. At one point, there was unauthorized Fred Astaire jewelry, cologne, tuxedoes and even condoms. 

When Astaire died at 88, he didn't leave behind a large estate - and defending her husband's legacy was expensive. Robin had already spent over $1 million on legal fees. 

In the ultimate irony, she needed the commercial revenues in order to keep protecting Fred's image. 

Celebrity endorsements have always been a staple of modern marketing.

We live in an attention economy, wrapped inside a celebrity culture, and there's no better way to get instant attention for a brand than to employ a star. 

Dead or alive. 

Yet the use of dead celebrities is fraught with issues. Is it morally right? Does it harm the celebrity's legacy? Does it enhance a brand's image? Does it sell product? 

Then there's the issue of what the public thinks when they see a late celebrity selling chocolate or vacuum cleaners. Does it creep them out? But what if the family of the celebrity is okay with it? 

One thing is certain - it is a fast growing industry. The licensing of dead celebrities is headed to $3 billion dollars a year in North America alone. 

The sudden surge might just be fuelled by technology. With incredible advancements, it's opening doors that were  unimaginable to advertisers in the past. It's no longer a matter of harvesting old movie and TV clips. Today, as the Tupac hologram and Audrey Hepburn chocolate commercial demonstrate, dead celebrities can now be given brand  new scripts. 

There was also a delicious irony in our story today. 

One of the earliest legal cases that tried to protect the rights of dead celebrities was based on Bela Lugosi, the actor best known for portraying Dracula. 

A character famous for rising from its coffin. 

But not even death can keep a good celebrity down these days. It's enough to give Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous line...

Source: YouTube

...a whole new meaning...

...when you're under the influence.