Dead Men Hawking

Celebs are losing out to the dearly departed.

| December 10, 2004

Jolly Dave Thomas has returned from beyond to pitch his beloved bacon cheeseburgers. Wendy's must have focus-group data telling them that dear old Dave reminds customers just how deadly good the chain's burgers truly are.

And Ford's gorgeous new Mustang, which mates a 1969 front-end to 1967 back-end and stuffs it all with 2005 technology, has resuscitated Steve McQueen. In fact, it is McQueen's second turn as Mustang pitchman from beyond the grave. A few years back, Ford rolled out a retro-outfitted dark- green 'Stang, all mag wheels and throaty roar, and tied it to McQueen's classic Bullitt chase scene.

Over at Wrangler Jeans, we find yet more McQueen in heavy rotation: Sheryl Crow warbles his name while images of rugged jeans wash over us -- McQueen, a jeans-wearing, muscle-car-driving guy, alive forever in our ads.

Celebs today must not need the extra pitchman work. The list of truly memorable, actually alive pitchmen is fairly short.

Crow's squeeze, Lance Armstrong, does not so much pitch Bristol-Myers Squibb as thank the outfit for its cancer-fighting drugs. You have The Daily Show's Steven Colbert doing his dead-pan investigator bit for Mr. Goodwrench. GM might want to note that these spots play more like a parody than an ad campaign. There's the Can-You-Hear-Me-Now guy for one cell phone company I can't remember and Catherine Zeta-Jones for another cell phone company I cannot recall.

Then there's Subway's Jared, an everyman thrust into celebrity via the ads themselves, which does not seem to count as true celebrity status. And down the street there's Burger King's Ugoff, an entirely fake celebrity from the fashion world which McDonald's has just moved to checkmate with Heidi Klum, a real celebrity from the fashion world. According to her publicist, Klum ate a french fry once.

I'd toss the Hardee's bull-riding, rather pornographic burger-eating chick in the list too, but no one knows her name. Or phone number. Monster Thickburger? That's genius.

Products themselves have the star power today, like the Hummer ad that presents the butt-ugly truck as an ever-enveloping mandala of joy and happiness, not unlike the orgasmic Thickburger. Or better still, the iPod, whose very shape and white ear-buds have become so iconic that they are easily lampooned.

Yet when the iPod finally opted for a conventional celeb pitchman, Apple hooked up with U2, and interesting things happened. U2 reached back and across demographic lines, presenting the iPod as something even fans who have followed U2 for the past 25 years could use. That is a valuable service for a device that is most popular with the under-25 set.

But U2 also gained from the association with the iPod, coming off as hip and cutting-edge despite being a bunch of stubbled Irish guys pushing 50. Indeed, with the introduction of a special black-and-red U2 iPod, the band became the product that it pitches. That's a win-win for the product and the pitchman, and it seems to be a rare thing.

Celebs do not need ad campaigns to help them reach the masses anymore. There are alternative ways of getting your, uh, face out there, as Paris Hilton demonstrated. And products in search of fresh, targeted identities do not really want to be associated with celebs whose images might grow stale or head off in ways that conflict with the product's own buzz of the moment.

Of course, I'll stand corrected if there is a Mötley Crüe iPod in the works. •

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