Marketing Dead Celebrities
Celebrity product endorsements have become a multi-million dollar industry. It’s reached a point where some advertisers have even exhumed the images of iconic dead celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, and Albert Einstein to sell products. This trend can only attributed to the rising prices of product endorsements from living celebrities.
In 2007, a bill was introduced in the California legislature to stop improper exploitation of dead celebrity images. The bill was a reaction to a federal court decision stating that the right to control the usage of a dead celebrity’s image didn’t apply to those celebrities who had died before 1985. Opponents of the bill have claimed that changing the court ruling would tie up the courts in litigation, particularly since many of these images in question had been in the public domain for years.
The image of iconic actress Marilyn Monroe is a prime example. Since her death, Marilyn’s estate and image has been controlled by acting coach guru Lee Strasberg’s widow. The estate of Milton H. Greene, Marilyn’s most famous photographer, however, has disputed all claims of Marilyn’s estate against the licensing of Greene’s world famous photographs.
Corbis and CMG
Corbis is a digital image company founded by Bill Gates. Since the company began, Corbis has acquired the image rights to many dead celebrities including Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, and Steve McQueen.
CMG Worldwide is a celebrity marketing organization representing more than 300 celebrity images. These include Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, Jean Harlow, and even civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, whose image had actually appeared in a Chevy ad. General Motors pulled the ad after a storm of protest from civil rights groups and others.
Top-earning dead celebrities
Since 2001, Forbes Magazine has run an annual list of “top earning dead celebrities.” With the exception of 2006, Elvis topped their list every year.
As of late 2006, Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain surpassed Elvis, the King of all dead celebrities, for the first time in postmortem endorsement revenues. Cobain’s image drew in $50 million from 2005 to 2006.
Kurt Cobain’s dethroning of the King had much to do with his widow Courtney Love selling off 25% of the rights to Nirvana’s song catalogue to Primary Wave, an aggressive marketing/publishing group.
In 2007, Love objected to a British Dr. Martens ad using Cobain’s image. While, in America, celebrities’ estates have been allowed to control the use of celebrity images, there’s no such law in Britain.
“Dead celebrities are hot”, Eric Pfanner, International Herald Tribune, URL: (http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/06/06/business/ad.php)
“Bill attempts to protect dead stars’ images”, Patrick McGreevy, LA Times, URL: (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-marilyn23jul23,0,3649339.story?coll=la-home-center)
“Firms dig for rights to dead celebrities”, Holly M. Sanders, NY Post, URL: (http://www.nypost.com/seven/08202007/business/firms_dig_for_rights_to_dead_celebrities_business_holly_m__sanders.htm)
“Elvis no longer king of the dead celebrities”, Buck Wolf, ABC,
Photo courtesy of BBQ Papers