Sunday, January 30, 2011

Resurrecting Dead Celebrities....For Commercials

In the Nineties there was a disturbing trend in American television commercials in using often long dead celebrities. The cycle began in 1987 with an advert in which Fred Astaire danced not with Ginger Rogers, but with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. Dirt Devil apparently thought the spot was successful, as they would follow it up with further commercials featuring the long dead Fred Astaire.

Sadly, it would not be long before other companies would follow Dirt Devil's suit in using dead stars to advertise their products. In a 1991 Diet Coke commercial, Elton John played for Humphrey Bogart, and Louis Armstrong. Diet Coke would follow up this ad with one featuring Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, and Groucho Marx. In 1997 John Wayne was featured in a commercial for Coors Light. The trend towards using dead celebrities in commercials would continue into the Naughts. In 2005 Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" sequence from the movie of the same name was used in a commercial for the Volkswagen Golf. Much to the relief of classic film buffs, the cycle appeared to end not long after that. Sadly, it would seem that another commercial recently debuted, featuring two more dead celebrities.

The offender is once again Volkswagen, this time using Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in an ad for the Jetta. Below is the offending commercial:

Personally, I had hoped that this particular trend in commercials had ended in the Naughts. Sadly, it seems as if Volkswagen wishes to revive it again. My objections to this spot and all the others which have gone before it are quite simple, and I believe that they are shared by most classic film fans. The first is that the use of a long dead celebrity in an advertisement is simply demeaning to that celebrity. This holds true of having Fred Astaire dance with a Dirt Devil and even more true of having John Wayne appear in something possibly as objectionable as an advert for light beer. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Groucho Marx, John Wayne, and the other stars who have been used in these adverts were very serious about their craft and are highly regarded by critics and fans alike. To use them in commercials for vacuum cleaners, cars, and beer is treating them as something of a joke, something they most certainly are not.

The second is that these commercials are obviously being made without the permissions of the stars. After all, the dead cannot exactly give permission to advertisers to use their image or their work in a commercial. It is quite possible that Gene Kelly would have objected to advertising Volkswagen cars and I think very likely the Duke would have objected to advertising Coors Light. Being a Coca-Cola drinker myself, I know I would be very unhappy if I was famous and after I died my image was used to sell Pepsi....

My hope is that this latest commercial featuring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor will be the last commercial to use dead celebrities in their adverts. To me it is demeaning to the stars themselves and, given they cannot give permission for their images or work to be used, it is disrespectful as well. I must admit, I would think twice of buying any product in which the manufacturer used the image or work of one of my favourite stars from the past.


Toby O'B said...

"My hope is that this latest commercial featuring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor will be the last commercial to use dead celebrities in their adverts."

Don't count on it, Merc; don't count on it. The only way they'll stop the practice would be for these celebrities to rise from their graves and seek revenge. So the suits feel safe and as long as these ads make them money..... oh well.

Raquelle said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING ABOUT THIS. Someone needed to address the subject and I'm glad it was you. I dislike this trend because it just shows how Ad companies (and the media in general) relies on established brands (in this case dead celebrities) to market a product because they can't come up with something original. It's downright lazy in my opinion.

The Donald O'Connor/Gene Kelly one was kind of dumb. If they are going to exploit, exploit! It seemed a poor use of both those actors.

On the flip side, I don't mind homages if done tastefully. I liked that P Diddy commercial (for Ciroc Vodka) in which he was channeling Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. They had Come Fly With Me in the background. It was tasteful. You can tell that P Diddy really admires that style but it was updated to be contemporary.