Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


Dave Thomas Joins the Corps of Immortal Icons

By Published on .

That Wendy's International should resurrect the image of Dave Thomas in its advertising barely five months after the hamburger chain founder's passing should astonish no one. In the 21st century, death is merely a phase in the life cycle of a brand.

In fact, you might argue "branding" has done what a hundred generations of alchemists, Frankensteins, physicians and theologians have attempted but could never accomplish: It's granted immortality to the earth-bound.

Look around and you will see not the crumbled remnants of forgotten Ozymandias, but the flourishing figures of the formerly famous. They seek to pull benefit from what was a rare privilege in the analog era, but that now, in the digital age, appears to be an inalienable right available to all: the right to replication, in aeternum.

Even the barely breathing
The barely breathing are boffo box office. MTV's The Osbournes, as all now know, is the most successful show in the history of cable TV, challenging broadcast prime-time hits on ad rates. On its heels, the been-there-and-done-that are repackaging themselves as new and improved. Stay tuned for Cybill Shepherd, David Lee Roth and Kato Kaelin. Their,

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ahem, maturing presence, abutting on-screen or in our minds their pixillated past, comfortingly confirms that (au contraire, Mr. Fitzgerald) there are second acts in American lives, and they pay residuals for a long, long time.

Broadcast TV networks have learned this too. They're engulfing audiences with a tsunami of nostalgia programming, marrying the mindless consolation of a rerun to the nervous anticipation of a high school reunion. "Cosby," "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Brady Bunch"-anything that can be mined is being dug from the vaults and displayed, with a little live-on-tape reminiscence and some bloopers added for frisson. (Then there's that whole class of not-quite-dead, not-quite-alive media brands: the network news anchors, Regis Philbin, Barbara Walters.)

For some of the retreads, at least, the ratings peaks are an indication syndication can't be far behind -- and, perhaps, movie deals, fresh shows and endless tours on the trinket circuit. After all, what is a brand if not a license to shill?

Of course, it has long been thus. Dead men talking was a right of brand passage before the year 2002. A "live" Walt Disney is still the mouth of the Mouse. In politics, Democrats used FDR and JFK as de facto spokesmen well after they'd left the building. Entire networks (Nick at Nite, Sci-Fi, Cartoon, etc.) have established their brands on the backs of the deceased.

Instant nostalgia
If there's a change in Wendy's rapid revivification of Dave Thomas, it's that nostalgia, which used to have to mellow for a few years before becoming a viable marketing tool, is now instantaneous. That's not necessarily a bad thing. (Is a California cabernet worse than a Bordeaux?) But it does signify a change.

For marketers and programmers alike, it might also indicate a risky poverty of imagination. Yesterday's brands may gather momentary ratings and recognition, but among an audience that would seem, by definition, to be disappearing. Worse yet is the possibility of backlash. My greatest fear is I will have to live not only with the Baby Boom generation's memories, but Generation X's and Y's as well.

The biggest, best and most profitable franchises are, of course, tomorrow's nostalgia -- that is, the hits that tap into today's zeitgeist and embed themselves in the hearts and minds of contemporary consumers.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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