Brands without a ghost of a chance rise from the ashes

UK brands should consider the American practice of using long-dead icons in their marketing. For who wouldn’t buy a thong endorsed by Lord Byron? asks Iain Murray

In Madison Avenue, they’ve discovered that when it comes to product endorsement, the hottest and most vibrant quality in a celebrity is that he or she should be dead. The latest company to reach beyond the grave for that added zip is Thomasville Furniture Industries of North Carolina, which has introduced a new range called the Bogart Collection.

The Thomasville ad describes Bogart as “an American icon who has endured the passage of time,” and adds, “you too can experience the feeling of Bogart’s era in your own home, piece by piece, room by room.”

Mitch Scott, vice-president for advertising and brand licensing at Thomasville, says: “We spent about two years developing product line concepts for the collection, which is kind of retro-contemporary. When you work with a prominent name like Humphrey Bogart, people have a sense of who the person is, a sense of the style of the person, which helps us establish the style of the furniture. And it creates curiosity. People want to come into the store and see it.”

Bogart is merely the latest star to be summoned from the echoing vaults of eternity and pressed into product endorsement. He follows Fred Astaire, who made a posthumous appearance on behalf of Dirt Devils vacuum cleaners; Charlie Chaplin, who did the same for both Apple and IBM computers; James Dean, for Levi jeans; Audrey Hepburn, for fragrances and watches; John Wayne, for Coors beer; and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, for just about anything.

Among the advantages of using deceased celebrities in this way is, as Thomasville Furniture says, that they have stood the test of time; dead they may be, but they are more alive than most of the poseurs and impostors who pass for celebrities in our age of febrile fame. Better still, the departed do not demand big fees, throw tantrums, or make unreasonable demands.

All in all, and a certain morbidity notwithstanding, there is much to be said for the use of dead heroes in marketing. Better still, we on this side of the Atlantic, are for once better placed than the Americans to make the most of an opportunity. For without wishing to be condescending, what the US lacks, and we have in abundance, is a rich and long history peopled by illustrious achievers, which is why the Yankees, bless them, see Hollywood stars, past and present, as a form of substitute aristocracy deserving of the kind of respect, admiration and awe that might, with luck, rub off on a piece of furniture.

So let us forget about Posh ‘n’ Becks, Tara Palmer-Wossname, and Camilla Parker-Bowling-Alley. Let us discard our copies of Hello! and OK!. Let us free our minds of A-list and B-list nonentities. Let us gawp no more at the near nudity of the strumpets at premieres of James Bond films. Instead, let us reach back into our island pageant and pluck from its glittering cast the men and women who will add lustre to any product.

Many of the names alone, like Fred Astaire stepping out in his white tie and tails, reek of class. William Makepeace Thackeray, there’s a handle to get a grip on. Percy Bysshe Shelley likewise. As for Richard Brinsley Butler Sheridan, well, there’s enough there to endorse the output of several furniture factories and of the hot dog vans in the carparks too.

And what about Byron? A sex maniac by all accounts, with a liking for both men and women, and a taste for incest. The Lord Byron Male Thong would, like the Bogart Collection, give a sense of the style of the person whose name it bore.

The Duke of Wellington, plain speaking saviour of the nation, now remembered chiefly for his boot, would lend to HobNob biscuits a retro-contemporary cachet, which even their most fervent adherents would admit is at present lacking.

It seems to me that if he were alive today, Charles Darwin would drive a Mitsubishi Space Wagon. Not very well, perhaps, but certainly no worse than any of the present-day owners of large oriental cars. His name and his striking beard would suggest reliability and good road holding in all weathers.

What the L’Oréal ads have lacked so far, memorable though they are, is Emily Pankhurst. Similarly, the name Sir Christopher Wren would undoubtedly lend to Pot Noodles the gloss that at present eludes the brand. FCUK, the jewel in the crown of modern marketing for which no amount of praise is fully adequate, would nevertheless be assured of the immortality it merits were its name to be linked with Pitt the Younger.

Radical though it would be, there might be a strong case for supplanting existing American brand names with an alternative better suited to the British market. Calvin Klein, for instance, carries none of the resonance of, say, Edward Elgar or Isaac Newton, both of whom would convey the reliability and sense of purpose one expects of a pair of underpants. And Donna Karan, while fine for New Yorkers, has none of the simple lyricism of the name Emily Brontë. In a spirit of Europeanism, Levi Strauss jeans might better be named Johann “the elder” Strauss for those tailored for the fuller figure, and Johann “the younger” for people whose buttocks have yet to acquire the dignified gravity of age. American cultural imperialism is not irresistible.

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