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Making money off the dead: Is necro-advertising worth the risk?

Making money off the dead: Is necro-advertising worth the risk?

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Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe passed over 60 years ago, but that has not stopped her from gracing ad campaigns. In 2015, cosmetics brand Max Factor chose to appoint the late actress as its global brand ambassador.

Fast forward to today , Pepsi MAX partnered with late hip-hop artist, The Notorious B.I.G. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop in an international campaign, releasing a remixed and previously unreleased song to amplify Biggie's legacy to a new generation of fans.

With this partnership, Biggie joined a laundry list of other celebrities, from Audrey Hepburn to Steve McQueen whose images have been used to promote brands long after their passing. Hepburn was revived to promote Cadbury’s Galaxy while McQueen for Ford Puma.

The notion of posthumously appointing a celebrity as the face of your brand may seem ethically ambiguous given the celebrity him/herself has no say in the association, but it is, in fact, a perfectly legal matter. In the case of Marilyn Monroe, Authentic Brands Group which is an American brand management company, bought over Monroe's brand image, granting it the ability to distribute the image to brands such as Max Factor. 

Don't miss: Pepsi MAX partners The Notorious B.I.G. with immersive campaign and unreleased track

Dubbed ‘necro-advertising’, this advertising tactic is no new phenomenon. However, it doesn’t always work in the favour of a brand. For instance, the link between Marilyn Monroe and Max Factor is a substantial one. Steeped in glamour in her glory days, the idea of being an ambassador for a cosmetic brand fits Monroe's persona like a glove. However the link between Audrey Hepburn for Cadbury's Galaxy chocolate, on the other hand, may be read as a tenuous one. 

Another example of a  ‘necro-advertising’ campaign that went south was when renowned shoe brand Dr Martens ran a campaign which depicted Nirvana's deceased lead singer Kurt Cobain in heaven wearing its boots, it went down like a lead balloon with critics. Some said the campaign was in bad taste for exploiting late celebrities for the sake of brand promotion. 

Consequently, the brand's agency, Saatchi & Saatchi was fired for its ill-advised decision and David Suddens, then CEO of Dr Martens' parent company, Airwear, apologised for any offence caused by the publication of images showing dead rock icons wearing Dr Martens boots. 

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Ambrish Chaudhry, head of strategy at Design Bridge and Partners, said that necro-advertising should be approached with caution. While a viable option to lure consumers, it is high at risk of lacking in taste. Given the loaded political blowbacks to often well-meaning campaigns, marketers should tread these lines of ethics carefully. He added:

“Like most things that are technology related, the mantra for marketers should be ‘just because you can, does not mean you should’.”

Moreover, in today’s era of authenticity, celebrities are often more aware and careful of the brands they associate with. Only after doing their due diligence working alongside the likes of legal, PR and publicists, do they agree to put a stamp of their name on to a brand.

Celebrities of yesteryears, however, do not have that same luxury when it comes to using their images for promotion. This is where marketers and owners of images should step up.

Jodh Dheensay, a partner at Sambal Lab, believes that owning the rights to a celebrity’s image does not necessarily mean that they should be used to endorse a cause – that is unless the celebrity stood by that cause when they were alive. He added that for an advertisement to work, the first step of due diligence is to ensure that there is synergy between the star and the brand.

Adding on Chaudhry shared that with the evolving social norms, “something that was acceptable at a certain point might tar the image of dead celebrities over time.” Hence brands should aim to remain on the right side of history.

How to mitigate the risks

One way of getting ahead of any negative perception that a brand risks with its use of necro-advertising, is by disclosing a statement about the contractual engagement it has entered into with the deceased celebrity’s estate, said Sutapa Bhattacharya, managing director at DIABrands. This provides an unequivocal signal that the brand is acting ethically.

For continued success of necro-advertising, these endorsements should be made after determining they match the desired brand values and be more transparent regarding the agreement with deceased’s representative.

Touching on the rise of AI, she added that while AI can 'bring back' icons from the past but genuine storytelling needs a human touch to keep the icons 'on-brand. While there may be ethical implications of using deceased celebrities to endorse products, empirical evidence suggests that it seems to work for brands with strong equity.

Doubts and ethical concerns, are usually raised when the brand has low equity.

Conversely, when brand equity is higher or more favourable, consumers are more likely to view necro-advertising through rose-tinted glasses. 

“For such brands, these brands’ assets send a credible signal about their capability to get approval from a deceased celebrity’s estate for the use of its image,” she explained. 

Its not about ethics, its about authenticity

Dominic Mason, managing director at Sedgwick Richardson sees the matter a little differently. If brands have bought over brand image rights from the family estates of the deceased, then the question is not of the ethics of necro-advertising, but rather the authenticity of it. At the end of the day "authenticity is critical for posthumous endorsements, honouring and respecting the values, purpose and personality of the brand”.

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