The man in black to walk the line again as a marketing icon

Johnny%20CashGreenlight has secured a licensing deal with the estate of Johnny Cash and his wife June, hoping to cash in on his wild past and, controversially, the couple’s Christianity. Louise Jack reports

Deceased music legend Johnny Cash may soon be adorning products from food sauces to greetings cards. The singer’s estate, is appointing specialist agency Greenlight as licenser to handle the personality rights for the star and his late wife, June Carter Cash.

It plans to market the Cash couple as the “original Brangelina”, bringing their identities up to date by positioning them as the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their age.

Greenlight, which has already rebranded 1920s actress Mae West as a Sex and the City-type modern icon for use on merchandise, also represents other dead celebrities – which it calls “delebs” – such as Steve McQueen and Albert Einstein.

Cash, who died in 2003, just four months after his wife, was identified by Greenlight as eminently suitable for use in advertising, marketing and merchandising after the couple’s story was told in the 2005 Oscar-winning biopic, Walk The Line. Greenlight approached the Cash estate to start marketing the Cash couple’s image.

Greenlight has big plans for monetising the Cash story with a strategy that is segmented into several strands, including focusing on his wilder youthful qualities and also his later redemption.

Johnny Cash’s status as a music legend and American icon is beyond question. “The Man in Black” led a troubled life, marked by alcoholism and addiction, while simultaneously becoming one of the world’s most influential musicians.

But his recovery from alcoholism and apparently happy marriage to June Carter in later years gives Cash other attractive and marketable qualities. Greenlight senior executive of product licensing and branding Diana Brobmann explains: “For us, Johnny Cash is about the romantic outlaw, the reborn Christian, the American soul.”

His extremely masculine image – Irish U2 rocker Bono once said of him: “Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash” – apparently helps provide the type of strong, unshakeable identity that makes using departed stars so attractive to advertisers. There is no risk he can change or spoil his image through further actions.

Despite Cash’s dissolute youth having potential appeal to more edgy brands, alcohol and gambling brands need not apply. The Cash estate has stipulated no such partnerships will be permitted.

The Cash couple

Greenlight is keen to exploit Johnny and June Carter Cash as a couple. Brobmann explains that the agency has learned that the pair were very keen cooks and there are family recipes in existence. A food range is envisaged, among other lines, which Brobmann describes as “smart brand extensions that still keep the integrity of who they were”.

For the couple’s music, Brobmann says top of the wish list is for the anthem Ring of Fire (once used by Levi’s in 2000) to be used by hot pepper sauce brand Tabasco. “We’d love to tie the music into products as well as advertising and marketing,” she says.

Cash’s extensive music output is of obvious value and has already been used in several ads. Hurt was used in a 2006 Nike ad and Sky Movies has used The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Don’t Take Your Guns To Town.

One other area Greenlight says it will focus on is Cash’s story of “redemption” and in particular the couple’s Christianity. Brobmann says: “This is an avenue where I think Johnny and June as a couple will become very important.”

Brobmann will not be drawn on exactly how this can be applied commercially, except to claim there have been enquiries from companies looking at “doing Christian cards”. She also points out that Cash wrote a lot of Christian music but says she is “not comfortable” disclosing what exactly is planned.

Christian outlook

It is hard to see how an overtly Christian positioning might have the mass appeal Greenlight hopes for. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising director general and author of Celebrity Sells, Hamish Pringle, warns: “Religion is always a very tricky subject.”

He adds: “Other celebrities are known to have religious connections such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta with Scientology, and Madonna with Kabbalah. Yet in none of those cases is there a commercial outcome. It’s just a thing they believe in, do and sometimes get mocked for.”

Pringle goes on to say that while celebrities can “lead the crowd when they express an interest in such things, I can’t see how that will work for a dead celebrity”.

Furthermore, while Pringle agrees that the “romantic outlaw” positioning makes sense for Cash, balancing that with born-again Christianity could present some problems.

“There are celebrities who have several aspects to them,” he says. “We always refer to the Beckhams in this regard. They have football, fashion, music and family. They face in those different directions, but there is a logic to that; it hangs together.”

Still, potential religious pitfalls aside, if it sticks to the formula practised by other Greenlight assets, Cash looks likely to continue his success from beyond the grave. As well as managing a star of music, in marketing terms it appears the Cash estate is set to cash in. 


Dead celebrities in advertising 

Images of deceased stars have long been used in advertising. The most recent trend is for digital enhancement of images, seamlessly integrating “delebs” into current situations and, in some cases, putting words into their mouths.

The benchmark for digital trickery is the award-winning work for Ford, created by JWT, featuring a revived Steve McQueen. For the European launch of the Ford Puma in 2004, the actor was seen reprising his iconic Bullitt role, driving through San Francisco, apparently in the new Ford. The company used McQueen footage again in 2005 in the US for a Ford Mustang ad.

In 2007, comedian Bob Monkhouse made a comeback four years after his death from prostate cancer in an ad made by The Communications Agency for Prostate Cancer Research. Archive footage of Monkhouse was blended with shots of a body double to make it appear as if he was walking through a graveyard, explaining how he died, interspersed with his signature one-liners.

A 2006 promotional drive for BBC Radio 2 entitled What an Amazing Line Up was a big hit on YouTube. It showed Elvis Presley introducing his “band”. The members included Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Sheryl Crow, Noel Gallagher and the Sugababes.

Less well received was a 2008 pro bono ad, which resurrected murdered Beatle John Lennon for the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. The ad digitally recreated Lennon’s voice with his face appearing to speak the words to slightly macabre effect.

While putting words into the mouths of the deceased might prove to be too unsettling for some, it is clear that the trend for using “delebs” is far from dead.


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