The Ethics of Using DEAD CELEBRITIES In Commercials


Okay, so y’all know that I don’t watch sports, which means I intentionally missed the Super Bowl. I understand that this commercial debuted then, but I just saw this on Saturday. A Snickers commercial starring Willem Dafoe, where he is shown morphing into Marilyn Monroe. And they use actual footage of the real Marilyn to insert into this commercial. On the one hand, yeah, it’s clever. But is it morally right?

And this just the latest in a long line of dead celebrities being used in commercials. There’s also recently been a Dolce & Gabbana commercial featuring Sophia Lauren. Year ago there was a Coors Light commercial featuring John Wayne and a Dirt Devil commercial featuring Fred Astaire. And many others. Time magazine once referred to this practice as Digital Necromancy.

I have to say that this is something that I’ve never been comfortable with. Just from an ethical standpoint, it feels wrong. It’s bad enough when just images are used in print ads.

jd lee

But these commercials where they digitally insert the celebrity and make it look like they are actually in the commercial, even manipulating their voices, it just feels more egregious. I’ve said before that my strongest political belief is in the right to privacy, which in my opinion applies to your own image. It’s something that you should have complete control over how it’s used. Now, yes, of course, I understand that they’re only able to do this because the various companies get the consent of whomever the deceased legal heirs are. But even so, why should even they have the right to decide that? How do we know if Marilyn Monroe were alive today that she would want to endorse Snickers? Or that John Wayne would want to endorse any kind of beer? And especially as the heirs get farther and farther away, to the point whomever has the current rights may not have even known the celebrity. You know maybe someone’s spouse, or their child, or even grandchild would have known the celebrity well-enough while they were alive, and can be trusted to make a judgment over what that person would have likely agreed to endorse (even though that’s highly debatable), but as generations get further away, you can get to the point where the celebrities image is being mis-used just for pure greed.

It’s been deleted now, so I can’t link to it,l but there was once a commercial featuring Martin Luther King Jr. (yes THAT Martin Luther King Jr.) being used for some crappy mobile phone company. His children have also licensed his image for a Mercedes commercial.

Where does it end? Could we one day he a commercial with Dr. King promoting over the counter sleeping pills (y’know, “I have a dream” and all that)? 20 years from now some broke Kennedy heirs could sell off the rights to have JFK in a Starbucks commercial. Malcolm X’s great great grandson could sell the rights to put Malcolm in a Cadillac commercial.

Or much much worse…

And if we can already do this in product commercials, what if they start putting dead celebrities in political ads? What’s to stop them?

You think certain politicians wouldn’t do that if they could?


I guess there’s no way to stop it, but it’s something that I have to say I don’t approve of it at all. It just feels wrong.


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