Advertising's Punch Bowl, Round 5: The Ungrateful Dead

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JT to PM

How come bluestockings get all bent out of shape when advertising gloms onto cultural icons? You know what I mean- when it uses celebrities (which it has had a hand in creating) to pimp products. Think Michael Jordan, Bob Dole, Ronald McDonald. And, worse yet, when it forces the very critics of commercialism into doing the same. Think (in the examples of a current Creativity feature piece): Lou Reed, bad-assed rappers, beat generation poets, Gandhi, graffiti artists, indie filmmakers. Does this fan your tailfires?

PM to JT

Hey Jim, do you think I can't see through your air-brushing of the topic here? Michael Jordan, Bob Dole, Ronald McDonald? You've got to be kidding me. I'm not biting at this flimsy bait. C'mon, even an unreconstructed idealist like myself doesn't pretend for a moment to think that your little celebrity troika is worth defending. We all know there's little or no difference between shilling for Nike and working for the NBA. Personally, I think Bob Dole was more honest pushing Viagra than pushing his bogus candidacy for the big job. And Ronald is a clown, for chrissake.

What's really interesting to me is how easily certain celebrities, artists and the like can swing from shameless shilling for dollars to playing principled populist without hurting their reputations or popularity. Does the public simply accept that these people are doing it for the money and find no fault in that? Is it that the public never really took these people quite as seriously as they take themselves? Or maybe ever since Ronald Reagan, it simply doesn't matter. Celebrity/actor/Commander-in-Chief/wres-tler/governor/Dirty Harry/mayor/bell-bottomed pop singer/-congressman/ad infinitum. It's all just one big show. And as one of our former White House occupants once said, "The business of America is business." And what do you mean ". . . forces the critics of commercialism into doing the same"? Who's doing the forcing? The money is what rules. Bruce Springsteen is not a rich man despite himself; he created and sold a product just like Bill Gates did. That his product appears to be free of commercial taint is like saying that Billy Graham is only in it to save people's souls. The real heroes are single mothers raising four kids on $20,000 a year, and no one is giving them millions to pitch products on TV. And why? Because when you're selling a myth it helps to use another myth. Reality doesn't work. Not in advertising, not in show business and not in politics.

JT to PM:

Hey, Phantom, dose-down (or is it dose-up?) the Ritalin. We agree on celebrity pimps and whores. But what about the jujitsu of using a personage, usually dead, to endorse a product? You know what I mean. Like Coke exploiting Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe in those TV spots, or the Gap having Ernest Hemingway and James Dean endorse khaki. Let's pick on Apple's "Think Different" campaign, where some of the cadavers are barely cold. I mean, let's face it, some of these dead dudes would be really pissed off to be associated with commercialism. To wit: Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein and Gandhi, for goodness' sake. And what about using Charlie Chaplin, who should still be pissed off about how he was used by IBM? Plus, I don't think Muhammad Ali knew what he was doing when he signed on. Poor guy. And I know that Bill Bernbach would be rolling over in his grave to be exploited in this dull and imagination-free campaign. Are these people worth defending, or should we just watch them going down the maw of merchandising, being sold out by their estates?

PM to JT

Hmm, do I detect a note of skepticism in your tone? Could it be that the Jim Twitchell of the "If people like it, how can you knock it?" school of cultural studies is harboring a slight twinge of concern about the ways of consumer coercion? I can hardly believe my eyes. Are you saying that there just may be something amiss in the land of plenty? I would have thought that you would be the first to extol the virtues of the power of personality to `give meaning' to the goods and services that compete for shelf space in the Great American Shopping Mall. Isn't that what Apple is doing in its campaign? You want to be different? A rebel? A great hero? A genius? Then do like Einstein would do, like Gandhi would do, like Hemingway and Dylan and Dean and get a Macintosh. C'mon Jim, do you really care about preserving the legacy of dead people? I mean, hey, if you can sell a couple of million more laptops, why would you let something like a sense of decency or conscience stand in the way? Do you want to make friends or make money? Which side are you on? I thought I was doing lookout duty to warn of the dangers of Faustian pacts for profit. But I see we have found your soft spot.

You say you wonder if some of these deceased personages would be pissed if they could see what commerce hath wrought through the exploitation of their good names. Well, I'm happy to see that you're willing to even consider the fact that they might not be too pleased. But Jim, that's the price of fame. The truth is, these people ceased to be real people a long time ago. They're icons and symbols - not flesh and blood. They're brands, just like Coke and Nike. That some of us are disturbed to see them as brands is an indication that perhaps we sense something important is lost when we allow what is human and real to be reshaped and repurposed in the interest of cold cash.

JT to PM:

Ouch, that hurt. OK, call me a silly romantic, but when it comes to the dead I think there should be a statute of limitations on shilling. Isn't there a term for brands that have lived out their shelf life? Ghost brands? Leave 'em alone. Ditto dead celebrities. It just doesn't seem fair that someone can exploit your image after you're gone. But I see your point. Maybe my only concern is aesthetic. I mean, isn't the continuing endorsement of dead celebrities at the very center of the institution advertising is still learning from, namely, religion? Not much separates all those Renaissance paintings of martyrs endorsing the Program from Gandhi rolling his eyes over the redemptive powers of a Mac. I'm not upset when the Dalai Lama sells his image to Apple. He should know better. But, jeez, let the dead die. You're right, I do have standards. Damn!

PM to JT

I'm glad to hear that your "Revel without a Pause" philosophy has its limits - and would be even gladder if you would extend your statute of limitations beyond the bounds of respect for the dead. How about respect for the truth? Or respect for common sense? You're right, advertising works just like religion. It's not to be questioned. It's the Faith. The Kingdom of Commerce expects its adherents to follow the hymnbook as written. I have worked with many celebrities, and the one thing they all have in common is an understanding of their role in the iconographic universe. The minute the cameras start rolling, presto, the essence of the product is revealed. They know that it is not about who they are, it's about what they represent. That's why show business is so cutthroat. At any given moment, you could be replaced by another shinier, newer or more appealing box of goodies. Integrity and humanity play as much of a role in all this as wantonness and hedonism in a nunnery.

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