A while back, I interviewed an executive at Q Scores after they released their semi-regular Dead Q Report.
Corporations pay Q Scores big bucks to determine which celebrities are “most wanted — dead or alive,” then figure out how to leverage these superstars’ popularity in products and ad campaigns.
For whatever reason, this month we’ve seen an uptick in the number of famous dead people hawking stuff on TV.
First, a pixilated, pixie-cut “Audrey Hepburn” stars in a glossy Dove Chocolate spot that the Los Angeles Times condemned as “the creepiest TV commercial ever made.”
I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who finds the practice of virtually reanimating deceased celebrities ghoulish and tasteless.
Now, I realize society is on an extended zombie kick.
However, this particular sun drenched, madcap production — in which Hepburn is chauffeured through the Uncanny Valley portion of the Riviera — is arguably more disturbing than the goriest “living dead” scenario, precisely because it so blithely denies the reality of death.
A la Norman Bates and his mother, pretending dead people were still alive used to be a sign of insanity.
Now it’s the premise for a sales pitch.
It’s bad enough the Seattle police recently teased some “new” photos from the scene of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
This morning, everybody is talking about the new Dutch beer commercial that depicts Cobain, Elvis, John Lennon and other famous dead people hiding out on a tropical island.
And a lot of folks aren’t happy about it.
But is it legal? That’s complicated:
Using a celebrity’s name or image in a work of fiction or other artistic endeavor can be touchy, depending on the court asked to rule; commercial advertising is the clearest case — the advertiser has to pay up. If you want to debate Albert Einstein’s influence on physics, go ahead; if you want to place his face on a T-shirt, Hebrew University gets a cut.
The promoters of these laws used to rationalize them as protecting their subjects’ dignity and legacy after death, but it’s hard to believe that anyone takes that seriously anymore. California’s Fred Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act, which placed the 70-year rule into effect, was enacted in 1999 at the urging, in part, of Astaire’s widow, Robyn. By then, she had licensed his image for a TV ad campaign showing him dancing (digitally) with a Dust Devil vacuum cleaner. But in a dignified way.
You know it’s bad when, for once, people are begging Courtney Love and Yoko Ono to go ballistic instead of wishing they’d shut up.
Which is interesting, because it speaks to the idea of “ownership.”
Fans who are instinctively affronted by commercials like these ones are, without realizing it, staking their claim on these individuals’ afterlives, too.
After Lincoln’s death, Edwin M. Stanton famously intoned, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Luckily, Stanton didn’t live to see Clone High.
Hell, I almost wish I hadn’t.