Digital Necromancy: Advertising with Reanimated Celebrities

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The screen fades in on a man observing the Shanghai skyline from his penthouse apartment. “Water. It’s like the instincts,” he says. “Be water, my friend.” Then the iconic Johnnie Walker logo flashes across the screen. It is a typical, if especially poetic, ad for the British liquor brand.

Except, one aspect of the spot isn’t so typical. The man selling scotch to viewers is Bruce Lee, the martial arts star who has been dead for 40 years.

Johnnie Walker’s Bruce Lee obviously isn’t the real thing, but you could be forgiven for being confused. The whisky maker used the latest in computer-generated graphics to resurrect a realistic near-video quality version of Lee. Experts and ad industry executives say this trend of digitally re-animating dead celebrities will only grow as technology improves.

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The process of using a dead to sell contemporary wares is far from new.  Even re-animating celebrities in video form has a long history. The first use of this practice appears to be a 1991 Coca-Cola ad in which Elton John sings the virtues of Diet Coke to a motley crew that included Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Cary Grant, and Groucho Marx.

While pioneering, Coke’s efforts look amateur by today’s standards. The ad essentially super-imposed old movie footage on top of a new background, limiting both the realism of the spot and the adaptability of characters’ words and actions. It is (digital) Bruce Lee’s ability to stroll through an apartment, stare into the camera, and read ad agency copy that makes him a true pitchman instead of a mere a pop culture reference.

Thanks to the work of men like Ed Ulbrich, who led the team behind Benjamin Button’s revolutionary facial animations, ‘delebs’ (as they are referred to by academics) can come back in more vivid detail than ever. A 2011 Dior perfume ad featuring Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich gave viewers the shivers with just how true-to-life the starlets appear. This accuracy is especially impressive considering a concept that scientists call “the uncanny valley.” Essentially, as one gets closer and closer to realistically animating a human, audiences get progressively more uncomfortable with the outcome. An obvious forgery is fine, but a 95% accurate simulacrum is often off-putting. However, according to Ulbrich, the valley has finally been surmounted, and animators are reaping the benefits of reaching a point where audiences can no longer tell a fake from the real thing. “I think as we go forward, I don’t know if it can look any better,” says Ulbrich. “It’s just real.”

At least for now, though, such realism is reserved only for those with multi-million dollar budgets. Even Lee flirts with the wrong side of the uncanny valley at times during his commercial, taking away from the emotional weight of his lines. That raises the question: Why do companies go through all the trouble of re-creating dead celebrities when they can just have living ones?

It turns out, there are many advantages that dead spokespersons have over their still-alive counterparts. In a recent paper by Denver D’Rozario, one of the leading academics in the study of delebs, the author points out that, unlike contemporary stars, delebs can never hurt a brand by generating a scandal. AT&T and Accenture dropped Tiger Woods, and lost a lucrative marketing partnership, after the golfer’s infidelities came to light. Marilyn Monroe, dead for 51 years, cannot do anything to harm her good name, or the good name of the brands she “endorses.”

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Another factor is cost. While animation might be expensive, getting top stars to talk up your brand is even more so. David Beckham was paid £30,000,000 for endorsing Gillette, while a one-year license to the image of James Dean, can be had for as low as $15,000.

Some savvy ad execs have used this price disparity to their advantage. One of those people is Mickey Paxton, the mind behind Lipton Brisk Tea’s wildly successful ad campaign that featured caricatures of famous figures, both alive and dead. During the Super Bowl, Paxton essentially “Moneyballed” his competitors by countering their high-priced current celebrities with classic stars who were much more affordable but just as recognizable. “Pepsico would be looking at ‘what are we were going to run’ for certain big money slots like the Super Bowl, and they always had the biggest and the best of what’s now” remembers Paxton. “[I said] well we can do just as well with big, giant icons as they can with the latest flavor of the month.”

Using a dead celebrity to promote your brand still has its dangers. For one, it can creep people out: In 2007, ConAgra thought they had a marketing coup on their hands with a new commercial that used digital effects to revive the actor who played Orville Redenbacher. The technology wasn’t quite there, and instead of delighting their audience the zombie-like digital Redenbacher prompted complaints that the company was desecrating the dead.

It’s ethical issues like these that can create problems for firms, says D’Rozario. If a company produces a tone-deaf ad featuring a live celebrity, it doesn’t make headlines. But when dead celebs are poorly used, accusations of “graverobbing” (as the late film critic Roger Ebert called it) are sure to follow. In fact, BBH, the company behind Johnnie Walker’s Bruce Lee ad, has received blowback because Lee was a well-known teetotaler. In another case, a television spot combining footage of David Spade and the late John Belushi was also seen by some as disrespectful.

But at least in the case of Lee, some experts think that the public won’t get hung up on the details. “People like Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Muhammed Ali, Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong — they transcend the individual almost… they’re really brands, and I think the public has embraced them as brands,” says Nick Woodehouse, president and chief marketing officer of Authentic Brands Group, the company that owns the Monroe estate. “A brand like Johnnie Walker… it’s a lifestyle, and the idea is that Bruce Lee is promoting that lifestyle.” In general, ad makers and animators are aware of the potential for coolness to turn into creepiness, and steer clear of anything that could be poorly received. “It had to be we were paying tribute,” says Ulbrich, referencing his Tupac hologram that debuted at Coachella. “Because if we don’t get it right, we’ve potentially committed an atrocity.”

What’s the future for delebs? With the technology to re-animate them getting less and less expensive, virtually everyone interviewed for this story was bullish on their continued use. “It’s perfect for now,” says Paxton. However, their predicted rise in popularity does have some built-in limitations.

One issue is something ad people call the “contrast effect.” Adverts that stick out do better than those that don’t. Right now, delebs catch the public’s attention, but that won’t continue if screens are flooded with the stars of yesteryear. Another issue is a lack of new “classic” delebs. D’Rozario believes there is some evidence to indicate contemporary celebs won’t have the same shelf life that past stars enjoy, and some industry insiders agree.

“I think celebrity and fame is more fleeting than it was back 40 years ago,” says Lisa Soboslai of Corbis Entertainment, a company that licenses the likenesses of past celebrities like Albert Einstein and Mohamed Ali. She believes that a more diverse entertainment landscape makes it difficult for any one celebrity to achieve Monroe-like fame. “You have so much more media out there with all the digital content and Internet TV, just all the choices that consumers have to consume media are so much broader today.”

That’s a problem, because D’Rozario says the success of current delebs is driven by nostalgic baby boomers. If the celebrities of now don’t have staying power, the concept might fade away once the boomers are gone.

But until then, expect to see your favorite stars from the old days returning to your TV screen. And thanks to computer graphics, they’ll be looking better than ever.