Posted by: brandextenders | May 17, 2012

I See Dead People and They’re Making a lot of Money

Remember the movie “The Sixth Sense” where Haley Joel Osment communicated with spirits that didn’t know they were dead? I too see people, usually on TV, that I know are dead and yet they’re making far more money dead than I am alive. What’s up with that? Take Michael Jackson whose estate just signed a deal with Pepsi to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s “Bad” album by using his silhouette on 1 billion soda cans to be sold worldwide. While the financial details weren’t disclosed you can assume this will add millions to the pop-star estate’s coffers.

Being dead can be profitable, at least for the estates of expired celebrities, as the annual Forbes list of Top-Earning dead celebrities’ shows. Combined, the top 15 people on the list brought in $366 million last year. Songwriters who own their work led the list because their body (no pun intended!) of work tends to throw off royalties long after the dearly departed have left the building.

The virtual world has increased the opportunities for estates to create new revenue streams with social media, video games and eBooks. Meanwhile legal recognition of the deceased’s publicity rights is an evolving concept. U.S. copyright laws have always protected intellectual property for 70 years after death, but New York State passed legislation declaring a celebrity’s right to prevent unauthorized use of intellectual property ends with their death. Britain and other parts of Europe have similar laws while California passed legislation giving celebrities the right to bequeath publicity rights to their heirs.

So why do brands chose the dead over the living to pitch their products and services? Two major reasons; the first being it usually costs a lot less to use the likeness and image of dead stars than those still kicking. Secondly, it’s hard to get involved in a scandal after you’re dead unlike Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps who lost a variety of sponsors when they did some really dumb things publicly. Brands don’t like scandals because while it may not be fair, when a celebrity self-destructs he or she can take a brand with them simply through guilt-by-association. Dead celebrities can certainly bring cache’ to a brand however the match must make sense otherwise the message can get lost in the fame.

So without further adieu, here are the top 10 dead celebrities based on earnings between October 2010 and September 2011:

  1. Michael Jackson – $170 million and bound to increase with the new Pepsi deal.
  2. Elvis Presley – $55 million and dead for 35 years this August. Not bad.
  3. Marilyn Monroe – $27 million. The rights to her estate were sold last December for an undisclosed amount, but you can bet it was an eight digit figure
  4. Charles Schultz – $25 million. Look for more Peanuts characters to appear in the digital space in coming years.
  5. John Lennon – $12 million. The Beatles are finally on iTunes and sold 1.6 million albums in 2010, more than any act dead or alive.
  6. Elizabeth Taylor – $12 million. Already pitching White Diamonds perfume, look for her name to be associated with other high-end products.
  7. Albert Einstein – $10 million. Not bad for a science geek that changed the world with his theories on relativity.
  8. Theodor Geisel – $9 million. Dr. Seuss’s amazing body of work will continue to bring joy along with financial rewards for generations to come.
  9. Jimi Hendrix – $7 million. Foxy Lady and other songs released through his estate bring in a respectable amount in royalties each year.
  10. Stieg Larsson – $7 million. More than 40 million copies of his trilogy starting with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” sold after his death. Bummer for him!

While the old Mafia saying, “Dead men (and women) tell no tales” may be true, certainly many leave behind a legacy that can be a source of revenue for their heirs and others. And if you should happen to see dead people on TV it’s not a reflection on you, but a good agent who convinced the brand that this really is a good idea.

I work with my customers to evaluate their promotional marketing needs and develop creative and measurable solutions based on those needs. I build long-term relationships to become a trusted advisor m clients turn to for their brand extension, promotional product, incentive and other branding needs. Contact me at stephen.woodburn@staplespromoproducts.com  

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