Dead celebrities versus staying alive: Lessons in brand relevance.

July 8, 2009


So many dead celebrities at one time…

Obviously, Michael Jackson, The self-anointed King of Pop would be the most famous of the lot. MJ was in the same league as Lennon and Sinatra. So much has and will be said about Michael Jackson, I shan’t write about him here. Suffice it to say, news of his death nearly crashed Twitter.

But then you have Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Karl Malden, Billy Mays, Gale Storm, Fred Travalena and quarterback Steve McNair, the last of whom was apparently murdered. For the morbidly gossipy I’ve run their names in order of “importance” as was loosely determined by counting pages in the most recent issue Entertainment Weekly.

Not surprisingly, all of these celebrities participated in advertising campaigns, the most famous being Karl Malden’s work for American Express. “Don’t Leave Home Without It” is one of the top ten slogans of all time, and deservedly so. The most infamous appearance (no surprise) was Michael Jackson’s ill-fated Pepsi commercial in 1984. During the shoot a flash pot exploded giving MJ second-degree burns. Some argue this incident was the beginning of the end of normal Michael Jackson. Plastic surgery, Painkiller addiction and assorted other weirdness would dog him to the day he died.

I’ve used the word “surprise” twice already in reference to Jackson. It wasn’t on account of his death. That he should perish from self-prescribed hospital grade anesthetics is, sadly, no surprise at all. He had become a grotesque long before June 25th.

When a human being becomes a global brand like Michael Jackson, it’s only a matter of time. And it’s usually not pretty. Look at Elvis Presley. Marlon Brando. Marylin Monroe. James Dean.

On the other hand, consider other icons not victims of their own tremendous success: Clint Eastwood, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bono. Especially Bono. How come these guys stay alive? They’re arguably as big as Michael.

My answer: Because they stay relevant. Clint makes and stars in one great movie after another. Bruce, Bob and Bono continue to write and play music that matters.

Michael did not. After releasing “Bad” in 1987, he pretty much fizzled. Like “Fat Elvis,” the only way he could get attention was by disturbing us. Death became the proverbial final encore.

Remaining relevant is key to a brand’s longevity. In my humble opinion, Michael Jackson is a poignant reminder of the alternative.

My twitter is alive!


5 Responses to “Dead celebrities versus staying alive: Lessons in brand relevance.”

  1. There is a principle that I’ve come across in a lot of different schools of thought, which is that leaders should not be consumed by the myths that have been built up around them. Their place in the cultural mythos is a role they are playing, but it is not who they are. The archetype you are representing is one part of you, maybe a big part of you, but it is not all of you.

    Michael Jackson was clearly somebody who was consumed by the mythology built up around him, and all the bloodsuckers that came along with it. I’ve read that he felt his entire life was out of his control, and in the hands of people who meant him harm.

    Comparing his life to another celebrity like Madonna, for example – Madonna indeed does like the controversy but we have not seen her go off the deep end. I am not a fan, but she does seem to be continually re-inventing herself as it suits her. I also saw an interview where she talked about how she could put on and take off the role of “Madonna” as it suited her.

    “Jesus said, ‘Blessed is the lion that the man consumes, and the lion becomes man. And cursed is the man that the lion consumes, and the man becomes lion.’” -Gnostic parable

  2. SRP said


    Very good points. As for your quote from Jesus, food for thought…literally!

  3. Justin said

    Good posting, all very true. However, you lost me when you started out by saying “I shan’t write about him here”, and yet the jest of it was all about MIchael Jackson.

  4. SRP said

    I said I shan’t but I shad!

  5. Very interesting perspective, sometimes the best way to continue your brand is to go out with a bang. Can you relate this to a business brand perhaps? I need some ways to help build my brand, but I don’t want to die to do it.

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