This is an ever-evolving story of a girl writer and her two greatest loves, the movies and travel. As she hikes the trenches of Hollywood, you're brought along for the ride.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Oddity Of Posthumous Celebrity Endorsements

About a year ago, I was driving North on Laurel Canyon Boulevard here in Los Angeles when I spotted a billboard depicting the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, and Clark Gable... iconic stars of Hollywood's past.  Of course, this is not all that unheard of-- especially in Los Angeles.  The twist?  It was a public service ad for condoms.  A number of questions came to mind as I drove away.  Is this legal?  Did they honestly get permission from the estates of these dead celebrities to push condom use?  And if so, how f***in expensive was that?  For a public service announcement.  Not to mention the fact that, let's be honest, the audience most likely to notice that billboard have not used condoms in quite some time.  Just sayin.

This also brings me to the question of posthumous celebrity endorsements.  To me, there's something inherently troubling about it.  As someone with an advertising degree, I've struggled with the idea.  The ethics of it.  It's one thing if someone is approached to endorse a product while they're alive and that person agrees to do so in exchange for compensation of some kind.  However, it's quite another thing if someone approaches your estate long after you're dead.  Or puts in an offer to your primary beneficiary: "Hey... we'd like to give you "X" amount of money.  All you gotta do is let us put your great-grandfather's face on a condom ad.  Cool?"

When a celebrity endorsement works, it can really bring a product to life and get people to notice it.  Celebrities are used all the time to hawk products.  Of course, most of them are living-- at least at the time the ad airs.  But let's face it, posthumous celebrity endorsements are just strange.  It's not like the celebrity personally tried the product and decided, "You know what?  This is darn good stuff.  I'll be glad to attach my name to it."

We all know this.  We see a celebrity like Marilyn Monroe depicted in a contemporary lingerie ad-- fully knowing that the lingerie line probably didn't even exist in Monroe's era.  Let alone did she wear any of it.

Don't be mistaken.  I'm not entirely against posthumous celebrity endorsements.  I just think they have to be dealt with cautiously and respectfully.  I believe we should honor the memory of the dead no matter who they are.  To me, the only way a posthumous celebrity endorsement works is if the celebrity in question is a good fit for the product.  That is to say, does it honor the celebrity's essence?  Leave us a beautiful memory of who they once were?  Or is there some distinguishing feature or characteristic about a celebrity that naturally lends itself to a certain product. Bob Hope was an avid golfer, but would you put him in a modern ad for Twizzlers?  Probably not.  But golf balls or a PGA Tour?  That's more likely. Of course, the most ideal circumstances for a deceased celebrity product endorsement occur very rarely.  And a posthumous celebrity endorsement must be treated with particular care.

A number of years ago, Gap famously lifted a dance sequence featuring Audrey Hepburn from the movie, Funny Face for their "Back In Black" campaign to sell skinny black pants-- a look that Audrey Hepburn originated.  In the ad, Gap famously transported a dancing Audrey from the beatnik era of Funny Face into the contemporary world of Gap.  They added splashy music and a kaleidoscope effect and there's Audrey dancing like a maniac and clearly having a blast.  And you know what?  Even though Gap got some flack for the ad at the time, I truly think Audrey would've gotten a kick out of it.

Speaking of which: Galaxy Chocolates, a British chocolate brand has an ad out featuring a CGI Audrey Hepburn traipsing around a watercolor-washed landscape, circa 1950.  It's obviously not Audrey, but her essence?  In my opinion, it's there.  And the ad, while not perfect, works.  We can imagine Audrey in that world, unwrapping a sweet moment and savoring the flavor of quality dark chocolate.

 And anyone who's read up on Audrey Hepburn knows that the girl was a fan of high-quality dark chocolate, pasta, and Granny Smith apples.  [All things that I also happen to enjoy fondly.] Sure, you see Audrey's likeness all over Hollywood, but as far as endorsements, her son handles those sorts of things.  And by all accounts, he's very selective about what he agrees to on his mom's behalf.  In all likelihood, he asks himself: Does it honor Audrey's essence?  Does it highlight some memory of her?  Things she loved, activities she enjoyed, causes she believed in? If yes, then it's a good fit.

Copyright © 2014 by Kendra Liedle