Age of the Celeb Spokesperson Comes to an End

Rash of High-Wattage Endorser Deaths Marks Close of Advertising Era

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- They don't make celebrity spokespeople like Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon anymore. In fact, they can't.

That trio, along with other recently departed product hawkers such as Karl Malden and Oscar G. Mayer, were woven into pop culture in a simpler and largely uncluttered media landscape. During the days when it was possible to sell 30 million copies of "Thriller" and 12 million copies of a pinup, those celebrity endorsers parlayed their popularity into selling products to the sorts of massive audiences that only events such as the Super Bowl and the Oscars generate today.

And the surprise passing of so many icons in less than a month serves almost as a marker to the death of that era itself.

Mr. Jackson, who died June 25, signed what was the largest endorsement contract in history in 1983, at the height of his "Thriller" popularity, to become the face of "The Pepsi Generation." While his subsequent legal troubles and eccentricities ultimately made him toxic for marketers, his Pepsi endorsement paved the way for artists such as Sean Combs, Jay-Z and even Bob Dylan to hawk products without losing (much) credibility.

Mr. McMahon, who passed two days before Mr. Jackson, leveraged the enormous popularity and ratings of NBC's "Tonight Show" to make himself a prolific pitchman for brands such as Budweiser and American Family Publishers. His live ads on "The Tonight Show" are the stuff of marketing legend. Imagine the viral traffic drawn by the sight of Mr. McMahon singing the praises of Alpo while a reluctant dog walks off rather than eat the stuff, only to watch the pooch replaced, head in bowl, by host Johnny Carson. Later in his career, Mr. McMahon, beset by financial troubles, became something of a parody of his former self. His last advertising gig was a self-deprecating Super Bowl spot for Cash4Gold.

Rare marriages
Mr. Malden, who died July 1, won an Oscar and an Emmy, but he's likely best remembered by many for his two-decade "Don't Leave Home Without It" campaign for American Express -- with the fedora, the dark suit and the no-nonsense delivery -- a sort of long-running celebrity/brand marriage rarely duplicated today.

The golden age of packaged-goods advertising certainly owes a debt to the late Oscar G. Mayer, whose July 8 death inspired memories of the Wienermobile and the ubiquitous jingles ("My bologna has a first name ..." and "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener") that helped create a billion-dollar package-food behemoth in the days before time-shifting.

Ms. Fawcett, likewise, enjoyed a level of fame and notoriety that would scarcely be possible today. She parlayed one season on "Charlie's Angels" and a famous swimsuit poster into international mega-stardom that included countless hair and cosmetics endorsements, including her own brand of Fabergé shampoos. "That, however, was back in the era of the Big Three [TV networks], not the Big 300 available to some households," Campbell Mithun media buyer John Rash wrote on AdAge.com last week. "Today, it's hard to imagine the small screen creating such a big sensation."

Indeed, if there's a model for small-screen shilling today, it's Billy Mays, who died at age 50 early on June 28. Mr. Mays, unlike Ms. Fawcett, Mr. Jackson and others, didn't use mass-media fame to sell products, but rather became famous by selling products to thousands of niche cable audiences over the course of a decade -- so much so, in fact, that some DRTV marketers are continuing to air Mr. Mays' ads even after his death.

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