Dead Celebrities Brought Back To Sell Stuff

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Readers always write, and I love to hear from them—especially if they have an intriguing TV-related question that makes me jump up and down yelling à la Arnold Horshack "Oh! Oh! I know the answer to that!!" Of course, I also love a challenge, so when someone asks a question which I can't answer off the top of my head, it immediately sends me off on a Mission, and I can't rest until I find the answer. (Not that I have this burning desire to be a know-it-all or anything"¦) Welcome to the first installation of what we hope will become a recurring TVHolic feature: The Mailbag. If you have a sincere question that's been bugging you for years, or just something that you think will stump me, this is the place to "bring it." Now, on to this week's question:

"I just saw a commercial for Orville Redenbacher popcorn using old footage of Mr. Redenbacher and that got me thinking....Who else has posthumously pitched products (either for their own company or just in general)?"

Several companies have raised celebrities from the dead in order to hawk their products, all with varying levels of success.

The trend started in 1991, when Elton John co-starred with Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong and James Cagney in a Diet Coke spot. This was the first instance of deceased celebrities being completely re-created digitally, rather than simply splicing existing footage into a film. The commercial was so successful that a second one was made featuring Paula Abdul (during her initial, pre-American Idol round of stardom) alongside Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and Gene Kelly.

Coors found similar success using John Wayne in a series of spots beginning in 1997. The producers cheated a bit in these ads, though; quite often the only part of the Duke that was digitalized was his face, which was then superimposed onto the body of famed John Wayne impersonator Ermal Walden Williamson, who provided all the "action."

They're Not All Winners, Though

astaire.jpgOne such campaign that backfired was a series of commercials featuring legendary hoofer Fred Astaire "dancing" with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. When the first spot (filmed with the blessing of Astaire's widow, Robin) originally aired during Super Bowl XXXI, it was a critical favorite. But once the commercials hit the airwaves in regular rotation, hard-core MGM musical fans thought replacing Ginger Rogers with a household appliance was disrespectful, and their revulsion was reflected in the company's quarterly sales report. The spots were quietly removed from circulation.

Thanks to Sarah for a great question that inspired an interesting trip down memory lane. Please feel free to send any TV-related questions you may have to for use in a future Mailbag!

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January 20, 2009 - 9:15am
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