Attack of the celebrity vacuum-cleaner-salesman ghouls

As Fred Astaire (d. 1987) can attest, it's never too late to sell a dirt devil!

By Leora Broydo

Published July 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

fred Astaire, Lucille Ball and John Wayne have more in common than being six feet under. They're all spokespeople -- c-AD-avers, if you will -- who have recently made postmortem appearances in television commercials for Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, the California Lottery and Coors Light.

If they were alive today, what would these Hollywood legends say to their being resurrected to push dust-removing apparatuses, gambling and light beer? Fred Astaire surely never imagined that in the afterlife he'd be cutting a rug with a Dirt Devil sweeper. Lucille Ball probably never dreamed that her face would be plastered on California lottery tickets. As for John Wayne, well, let's just say he'd probably rather shoot a Silver Bullet than drink one.

But such matters are of less interest to advertisers than the spots' popularity with viewers, which has led sponsors to exhume stars and bring them back to digital life faster than you can say rigor mortis. The "ground breaker" was a 1991 commercial for Diet Coke in which Elton John performed for Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong. The success of the ad led to a sequel featuring Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and a young Gene Kelly, who at the time was still very much alive.

The two recent Coors commercials featuring the Duke were also wildly successful. "Last year we sold more [Coors Light] than any other beer in the company's history," says Coors spokesman Dave Taylor. "I don't think we were quite aware of how people still respond to [John Wayne]. We got a lot of positive consumer feedback."

During this year's Super Bowl, Dirt Devil ads featuring Astaire dancing with a Broom Vac and Ultra Hand Vac had more viewer recall (a standard gauge of an ad's effectiveness) than those featuring such "living" celebrity product pairings as Cindy Crawford with Cadillac and Bob Dole with Visa.

Using dead celebs to push products has obvious advantages for advertisers. For one thing, dead stars are less likely to scandalize advertisers in the way, say, O.J. Simpson disgraced Hertz. Nor do dead stars make unreasonable demands or require ego-stroking of any kind.

"It's a pretty clear-cut business deal that you're making because the person is deceased and obviously void of ego and celebrity eccentricity," says Taylor. "You're not going to get any feedback from a deceased person, that's for sure."

A small but vocal group of cinematic purists, however, are disgusted at this growing trend. They regard using the work of deceased actors to make a buck as an act of wanton greed on the part of those who own the rights (usually family members) and as a desecration of the actors' art.

"I don't have a problem with artistic quotation of moving images, as in 'Forrest Gump,' because there the intent is obvious and can be justified by the artistic license of the new artist," says film critic Roger Ebert. "Using JFK in 'Gump' is the movie equivalent of Warhol's Marilyn portraits. But in the case of TV commercials, unless a deceased star has specifically granted permission for this use, I think it is akin to grave robbery. To sell an image -- i.e. the likeness and name -- might be within the legitimate rights of an estate. But to recycle an actor's actual work, their acting, is shameful."

Thus far, the Dirt Devil ads have drawn the most ire -- particularly from Astaire's daughter Ava McKenzie, whose stepmother authorized use of Astaire film footage. "Your paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented," McKenzie wrote in a letter to Royal Appliance Manufacturing, makers of Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, adding that she was "saddened that after his wonderful career, he was sold to the devil."

Asked to justify selling their loved ones' images into product-shill purgatory, most family members say that they will only work on commercial ventures that the star would want to be involved with if he or she were still alive. In other words, a lot rests on the integrity of the executors.

"Money. That's really the bottom line," says Lucille Ball's daughter Lucie Arnaz of her decision to let the California Lottery use footage from "I Love Lucy" for an ad campaign. "We were paid a decent license fee in order to have my mother's and my father's image on the California Lottery and it was a respectable campaign." Arnaz says she has standards. She won't allow her mother's image to plug just any old project that comes her way. "I'm not going to promote toilet paper or anything that conjures up really disgusting images."

Until recently, stars could not foresee that technology would enable the use of their screen work for any reason other than the intended purpose. As today's actors become aware of this, legal experts profess, their wills could become more specific as to how they want to be cast after the final curtain has fallen. But even the most protective of estates may not be prepared for today's body-snatching technologies.

"People are working on totally digital models of people," says Joseph Beard, professor of law at St. John's University and author of "Casting Call at Forest Lawn: The Digital resurrection of Deceased Entertainers" (High Technology Law Journal, 1993). "Instead of cutting them out of an existing film, you'll be able to create a Marilyn Monroe and not rely on old films in order to put her in something new."

Arnaz, for one, has seen the future. "It's like creating the H-bomb," she says. "You could have Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, who little children all over the world know and recognize, talk about getting a great education, talk about safe sex, talk about don't smoke, don't drink. Or you could have them making porno movies."

That would be quite a resurrection -- especially for two people who slept in separate beds.

Leora Broydo

Leora Broydo is a San Francisco writer who hopes to sell propane and propane accessories in her next life.

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