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Ad People, Don't Get Stiffed by Dead Celebritites



Talent Partners CEO Paul Muratore on the beneficiaries and logistics of endorsing a brand with deceased celebrities

Ad People, Don't Get Stiffed by Dead Celebritites

In the world of advertising, these are great days to be a dead celebrity.  Icons like Marilyn, Sinatra and even Albert Einstein (and his tongue!) are ubiquitous – with their images, old movie clips and voices being deployed by creatives to emote an image and quality that moves mega-units for brands. 

Post-mortem use in advertising has also given greater success than enjoyed during life to cult figures like British folkie Nick Drake.  The title tune of his barely bought 1972 album, “Pink Moon”, was plucked from obscurity in 2000 to power an award-winning Volkswagen spot.  The commercial ignited the sales of his long out-of-print back catalogue to chart-success way beyond anything enjoyed during his lifetime.

Today, the marketing, licensing and commercial use of dead celebrities is a more than $3 billion dollar business.  Our own payments to the beneficiaries of departed icons utilised in commercials have grown by nearly 20% in the past two years.

So why, according to a recent survey conducted by our company of senior production executives at the top agencies, would 80% rather work with a live celebrity than a dead one?  Aren’t they, and their real world demands, more problematic than working with a dead celeb, who can’t insist you fly their trainer, vegan chef, hair and makeup people first class to the set or banish the beloved brown M&M’s and bagels from the craft table?

No. It’s because dealing with estates of departed icons and the parties related to their image and product – the movie studios, music license holders and the like – can be fraught with complexity that sometimes ends in litigation.  And like brain surgery and hair styling, it’s something best done by experts.

So what do you need to know before tying the fortunes of your client to the powerful image of a dead star?

Tracking down the person authorised to negotiate can be problematic:  While this is not as much a factor with a sophisticated and long-profitable estate like Marilyn or James Dean, the issue of who has the power to make the call can involve a lot of research, especially if it’s a less frequently utilised person or their creative product.  While in some cases it’s a corporate licensor, estate attorney or estate department of a studio, it could be a family member, his attorney, or even a group of family members.  As for the big names, they are getting increasingly concerned about over-exposure and more selective about what they tie their image to, to keep their market value high;

Button up all the layers of rights needed:  Keep in mind, it’s not just the estate of the talent that needs to be vetted for use, it is often the movie studios, photographers, record labels and music publishing holders who have a stake in the creative product.  When the clip or music is old, the library and the rights may have changed hands multiple times, via mergers, even divorces, making the hunt all the more time-intensive.  As for a spot like Macy’s iconic “Anthem” campaign, which utilized clips of stars like Desi and Lucy, Charlie Chaplin, Johnny Carson and more, the list of parties whose sign-off is needed may well have been in the dozens;

Write in warranties and indemnifications: If an entity represents itself as the rightful administrator of an estate, always write in an indemnification to protect yourself from claims by other parties who may pop out of the woodwork once the spot goes public.  But if you are dealing with a less sophisticated estate, heirs to an oldie musician say, and there is some kind of claim, the indemnification may not be worth the paper it’s printed on, as the party may not have the resources to cover the claim;

You could be cutting a lot of checks:  Be mindful, that with many estates, the onus will be on the advertiser and his talent payment rep to cut the checks, which could go to a bevy of the star’s family members, along with their agents, attorneys, etc. Not to mention the studios and licensees who will demand a slice of the pie for their footage, copyrighted images or music and more;

You could find yourself in the middle of a family feud:  Nothing tears a family apart like a fight over an estate, and that sometimes extends to the mega-bucks generated by a deceased star’s likeness.  It’s not uncommon in situations where advertisers have to negotiate with a descendent of a star that the well-meaning marketer ends up in the middle of a family feud, an on-going drama that has boiled for decades.  Who wants to get into the middle of this kind of family reunion, when big budgets, deadlines and your relationship with the client are on the line?;

There are bargains to be had: Don’t necessarily assume using the image or work of a departed icon will break the bank.  As in the case above with once obscure folkie Nick Drake, those who manage the creative product and continuing business interest of icons know that use in a high-profile ad campaign can pay huge dividends far and above the fee for use and will be very negotiable.  For the right brand, the representatives of the estates of the biggest icons will be mindful of the impact a hot campaign for a prestige brand will have to their post-mortem star marketing, and give a little or a lot on the cost;

Be especially careful with Internet content:  Be it a web-only ad or a promotional site, sometimes folks play a little faster and looser, calculating that the chances of being discovered are far less. Big mistake. Those who manage big estates, studios, record labels and SAG-AFTRA are devoting huge resources to keeping their eyes on this area, to uncover unauthorized use of clips, images, songs and claim their rightful share.

Nothing attracts litigation like a memorable ad:  When advertising does its job, it creates huge awareness and attention.  And if you’re in the wrong in any area, without all the proper signoffs, this attention will attract lawsuits squared;

And lastly, it could be charitable:  For the altruistic-minded ad executive, going with a dead star may be the way to go. Why? Because some leave a hefty chunk, and a few the entire profit generated by their estate and likeness, to charity.  The mega-bucks generated by the use of Albert Einstein’s image in adverts for brands like Microsoft, Intel, Xerox and Chrysler have bequeathed millions to his beneficiary, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.;


Paul Muratore is president, CEO of Talent Partners, a talent and production support services firm.


Ad People, Don't Get Stiffed by Dead Celebritites
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Talent Partners, Mon, 14 Apr 2014 19:18:07 GMT