To Die For
The sales clerk turned toward the counter with a glazed, possessed look in her eyes, the kind of look one could only have if one were staring into the luminous face of God."Welcome to Service Merchandise," she intoned breathlessly. But the sales clerk wasn't looking at God -- rather, she was gazing into the face of a long, lost friend, an older woman who entertained the clerk during her childhood of afternoons spent two feet away from an old Zenith console, eating Fruit Loops out of the box.The visitor was Lucille Ball. Sure, Lucy died in 1989, but there she was, in all her early-Sixties monochromatic glory, trying on a huge diamond and loudly extolling its virtues.Perhaps the store was haunted, because dead stars from the "golden age of television" were swarming the establishment like jovial zombies in search of an elusive laugh track. Fred Gwynne, who died in 1993, played with toys while dressed as Herman Munster. Jack Webb, dead since 1982, shopped for a microwave with Harry Morgan, who, at press time, was still alive.All of these images, culled from classic television, were being used this Christmas season in commercials for Service Merchandise, a nationwide catalog showroom. Joining other current commercials for computer software, soda, hand mixers and beer, they represent the advertising industry's recent foray into Lazarus-style marketing -- bringing back the deceased so they can endorse products indefinitely. Call it "Nick at Nite of the Living Dead."British author Somerset Maugham, on his deathbed, said, "Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it." But Maugham's viewpoint as he faced the hereafter is not shared by pinstripes calling the shots these days in the creative departments of several advertising agencies. In the Nineties, dead stars are hotter than a supernova.Charles Edgeley, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University who teaches a course on death, believes the public elevates its deceased heroes to a status they never attained in life. "In my course on death and dying, I have a section called 'Death as Sport and Entertainment,' " Edgeley said."Under certain circumstances, we're attracted to, entertained and even sold by the prospect of death. "People magazine -- their largest-selling issues have been, respectively, the John Lennon issue, the Jackie Kennedy issue, the Lucille Ball issue, which has led one wag to suggest that they ought to rename the magazine Dead People."In these end-of-the-millennium days in which societal and technological changes occur at breakneck speed and people cannot claim a collective consciousness on any subject, nostalgia is more prevalent now than ever. The longing for a simpler time is reflected in the success of Nickelodeon's "Nick at Nite" and touchy-feely, neo-"Waltons" television dramas such as "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and "Early Edition." "In this kind of climate, nostalgia of all kinds has made a big comeback. It's comforting. 'Andy Griffith' will never die," Edgeley said.It should be noted that Edgeley is referring to the television show, not the gospel-singing former star of "Matlock." The show might live forever due to what Edgeley describes as its idealized look at small-town America, but it can be said with a fair amount of certainty that, someday, Andy Griffith will die.Couple feelings of nostalgia with our obsession with celebrity, and a unique bit of creative marketing takes place. If you are nostalgic for the days which, probably through historical revisionism, you see as being idyllic -- plus, you are a big fan of classic movies and television -- then why not use old images of important dead people to sell anything from a disposable razor to a European luxury car?"If you tie nostalgia to celebrity, you have a powerful mixture," Edgeley said. In a current ad for a Braun kitchen appliance featuring Jackie Gleason, who has been dead since 1987, a powerful mixture is made with Gleason and a powerful mixer. During a segment lifted from Gleason's Fifties variety show, the Great One, calling himself "the chef of the future," demonstrates a then-new cooking implement. However, through the wizardry of computer digitization and manipulation, Gleason, circa 1957, is using a Braun hand blender.There are practical reasons for choosing to reanimate the dead for monetary gain. Such stars are cheaper, easier to manage and possibly pack a bigger emotional punch than a current, breathing celebrity. "It's cheaper to use a dead celebrity than a live one," said Lewis Small, a professor of advertising and marketing at York College in York, Pa."You're looking at a tenth of the cost or less."But anyone who has followed the self-destructive heroin nods of Robert Downey Jr. or Hugh Grant's fellatio-from-a-hooker debacle knows that celebrity endorsements can be dangerous. In some cases, an ideal spokesperson can become a king-sized liability overnight. Just ask those Dallas auto dealers who found themselves stuck with Michael Irvin. With this in mind, dead people can start to look pretty good."They are dead, and being dead means they can't come back to haunt you," Edgeley said."You can use them to hawk a product, and they are not going to do something tomorrow that will bring your product, by association, into utter disrepute."Bob Garfield, an editor at Advertising Age magazine and frequent contributor to National Public Radio, succinctly wrapped up the virtues of using electronically embalmed stars."They're famous, they're cheap, they show up to work and they don't complain," he said.According to Edgeley, dead stars are more effective because the current crop of living celebrities who are willing to prostitute themselves for the almighty dollar are, well, dolts. Sure, A-list stars are willing to shill products in far-away locales such as Japan, but if you're advertising in America, you probably won't get Mel Gibson to endorse Breath Assure. Edgeley said there is a big difference between "star" and "celebrity.""In the post-modern era, stardom has been replaced by celebrity," he said."(In the case of celebrity), the tube has found you attractive for a wide variety of reasons. Regis Philbin, whatever he does, is a celebrity -- he's clearly not a star, he has no talent. They are the Mickeys and Mallorys (the murderous, glorified couple featured in 'Natural Born Killers') of our age -- you can be totally infamous and be a celebrity."Moreover, if your dead star had a few peccadilloes -- Gleason was known to drink and carouse to excess -- at least you know they already have sewn their wild oats. And feelings of nostalgia tend to lighten up a "dark star.""Even Jackie Gleason, who was something of a scoundrel in many ways, in death has become this huge character," Edgeley said.In death, they also become huge business. CMG Worldwide, a large artist management company headquartered in Indianapolis, represents hundreds of dead stars of stage, screen and sports. If you want to use Ingrid Bergman, Billie Holiday, Ty Cobb or Matthew "Stymie" Beard in an advertisement, you must first contact CMG.CMG also handles image rights for the two stars who tie up the intersection where nostalgia and necrophilia collide: James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. In a memorable ad from last year, Chanel No. 5 morphed an unknown model into Monroe. Levi Strauss recently used Dean for a "rebel without a zipper" ad for 501 jeans. Between these two dead sex symbols and the rest of its deceased clientele, CMG is a force to be reckoned with after a star experiences his or her day of reckoning.But you don't have to be dead to be represented by CMG -- you don't even have to be human. For instance, Secretariat is represented by the company. Talk about beating a dead horse. CMG's client list also includes retired sports stars such as Jake LaMotta and Jim Palmer, as well as stars such as Sandra Dee who now rely on personal appearances (a.k.a. store openings or geek conventions) for much of their income. Until his death on Nov. 30, Tiny Tim was available for personal appearances through CMG.Tim was eulogized on the company's website: "He loved life and always said that he had been blessed with a full life. Therefore, we should feel contentment that Tiny passed away in peace."At CMG Worldwide, you never lose a client -- you just change your strategy.Beyond nostalgia, the rapid growth of technological capabilities in television production has made the resurrection of celluloid heroes far easier, less expensive and more appealing. Plus, people get a kick out of seeing such computerized chicanery, something marketing experts call the "gee-whiz factor." "There's a gee-whiz value in seeing someone you were pretty sure was dead still performing in an obviously contemporary context," Garfield said.But there is a question as to whether this approach succeeds in making you want to buy what's being sold."Does it make you pay attention to the product? If it does, God bless them," Garfield said."If it does not, if it distracts you from what the product is all about, then they have just wasted their time and money.""You have to be careful -- it can be a problem," Small said."You have to make sure the commercial focuses on the product rather than the 'gee whiz.' That's the same type of problem when you use humor -- people can remember the joke but not the message or the brand name."Some of this advertising is 100-percent "gee whiz." In a current ad for Coors Light, a Marine drill instructor, played by R. Lee Ermey of "Full Metal Jacket" fame, finds a six-pack of "Silver Bullets" in the barracks and yells at his recruits, ordering them to identify the owner of the beer.Suddenly, John Wayne appears as "the general," his image pulled from the 1966 cheeseball war flick "Cast a Giant Shadow.""It's my beer, Sergeant," Wayne, or a competent voice impersonator, says.The haphazard dialogue is culled from the film and from newly written ad copy. Little emphasis is placed on the product. In his review for Advertising Age, Garfield gave the spot a stern rebuke."There is awkward dialogue and a silly, contrived premise. What is a general's six pack doing in the recruits' barracks?" Garfield wrote."And why do those extras so little resemble young grunts? The short, balding guy with the round metal-rimmed glasses looks more like a 35-year-old Austrian art director than a 19-year-old U.S. infantryman."Garfield believes this is the worst that advertising has to offer, and it's a horrendous waste of commercial dollars, thrown away for the sake of novelty. He has been following this trend for a few years, since the early-Nineties Diet Coke spots, which incorporated images of long-dead actors and performers appearing with pop performers such as Paula Abdul."There was Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Gene Kelly for Diet Coke, and there was the one with all these celebrities performing, apparently contemporaneously, with the late Elton John," he said.Actually, Elton John is alive. Sorta.Garfield said he doesn't think the recent upswing in the use of appropriated images of dead stars is reflective of any societal patterns. He said this is the work of technicians with nothing better to do."Does it tell us anything about society? No," he said."What it tells me is you can do things with work stations at Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects firm first made famous through its work on 'Star Wars') that you couldn't do five years ago. I don't think it has any meaning at all, apart from ... you can do it," Garfield said."Why does a dog lick its balls? It can."To Charles Palm of Synthonics Technologies, a computer research and development firm in Westlake Village, Calif., all of these ads already seem old hat. At Synthonics, technicians are working on the next stage in such technology, a system which likely will blur the lines between fantasy and reality, setting a standard from which we can never fully retreat."In the current use of celebrities, they're going back to shot footage and extracting segments of it where the lip movement is close enough to the new dialogue that they can use it and dub in dialogue," Palm said."That kind of limits the application."Synthonics, as we speak, is digitizing all aspects of a select group of dead actors, mostly of the Humphrey Bogart/Spencer Tracy variety. Facial expressions of varying types, a phonetic alphabet of lip movements and other tics and characteristics are being stored in computers for future use in film projects."What we can do with our technology, which we call Rapid Virtual Reality, is it allows us to extract three-dimensional structure from photographs or videotape," Palm said."So, all of the film archives of Bogart, Tracy and John Wayne and all the rest of them that are gone, we can go back through those and use images of them and extract three-dimensional structures for their heads."We can extract, additionally, their facial articulation as they do their performance," he said."What we do is create a wire-frame mesh which represents the three-dimensional structure, and we measure how that mesh changes in the acting performance."The possibilities are endless -- and just a little frightening. Palm suggests love scenes between Tom Hanks and Katherine Hepburn, circa "The Philadelphia Story," as being possible in just a few years. He suggests that movies starring a 34-year-old Tom Cruise can be produced well into the next century, and his looks will never change. Reality will become completely subjective. In an age when it is quite conceivable that a photograph of O.J. Simpson wearing expensive, "ugly-ass" shoes is indeed a fake, photographic records of events could become completely inadmissible in court proceedings. Anyone could be defamed, with regular footage of presidential candidates cuddling up to bar girls in Manila becoming a regular staple in election years. Such technology could push society to a level of cynicism that can only be imagined. On a less serious level, one has to wonder about the artistic quality of movies, television shows or other future formats that would rely on such technology. Could a film that is predicated solely on the notion of anachronistic players bumping into one another really be worth the $20 admission we will pay in 30 years?Still, Palm is not concerned with opening such a Pandora's Box. In many ways, he sees this as potentially the best thing that could happen in film technology. Palm describes Rapid Virtual Reality almost as a digital form of cryogenics."What we're doing is trying to extend the digital technology so that the deceased actors can be brought back," Palm said."You might want to see Tom Cruise acting opposite Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. You would like to have the freedom of putting deceased actors into new scripts."Regardless of such developments, some experts see the trend of placing dead celebrities in new contexts, particularly commercials, as being a trend of the moment and something that will either fade away or become just part of the creative palate."I think it's something that's probably approaching its peak, but it's not going to disappear," Small said."It will become like Claymation, which was tremendously popular for awhile. Now, it's rare, and I think you'll find the same thing with the dead celebrities."Garfield is even less optimistic. He likens the use of dead stars to a recent film about obsolescence, Pixar/Disney's "Toy Story.""It's just a new technique," he said."It's a new toy that they have to play with, and like most new toys, it will be overused for a period of time, used constantly, then shoved in the corner because the next toy has come along."Think of it as Buzz Lightyear. But eventually the next gadget or gimmick will come out, and Buzz will go back into the toy box with his leg hanging out limply next to the cowboy."