For a guy who went to that big game in the sky more than 25 years ago, Vince Lombardi had a very busy 1996. On football Sundays, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach was back in the limelight, starring in a string of 10 TV commercials for Nike Inc.
Nike and a pack of other corporate advertisers have discovered a new breed of pitchmen who don't spit in umpires' faces, get busted for drugs, or beat up their wives: dead legends. Among the departed, sports icons are especially hot. Corporations currently featuring such stars in their ad campaigns include Citibank (Babe Ruth), Microsoft (Lou Gehrig and Jesse Owens), and Miller Brewing (Satchel Paige). Jackie Robinson's popularity with advertisers has soared this year, the 50th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in baseball. Corporate advertisers whose campaigns evoke Robinson's memory include McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Apple Computer, and General Mills.
In the Nike ads, Lombardi (played by Seinfeld's Jerry Stiller) dispenses hard-bitten commentary on an array of football topics and grudging praise for his favorite National Football League stars--all of whom have endorsement contracts with the sports shoe company. Response to the ads was overwhelming, say Nike executives. "We could have used current coaches. But when you think about who best represents the core values of football, no one lives up to the legend of Lombardi," says Chris Zimmerman, Nike's North American ad director.
LOW RISK. Ruth was chosen to represent Citibank in an upcoming campaign--49 years after his death and 62 since his last homer--for similar reasons. "Babe's an American sports icon, instantly recognizable," says Ken Gordon, a Citibank vice-president, explaining why Ruth got the nod over contemporary ballplayers.
Using a deceased sports celebrity to anchor an ad campaign can work beautifully--and be relatively cheap. For the use of Ruth photos in three newspaper ads, investment bank Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. paid $15,000, chicken feed compared with the fees commanded by some of today's superstars.
And advertisers get more than a bargain when they hire the dead. There's also peace of mind. Campaigns featuring living sports figures can be high-risk, vulnerable to sabotage by a career-ending injury or a highly publicized arrest.
Dead celebrities are nearly scandal-proof. "Controversies aren't likely to loom up," says Mark A. Roesler, an Indianapolis lawyer who makes deals for the families of about 100 legends. "O.J. Simpson gets in trouble. But Babe Ruth isn't going to kill anybody."
Roesler gets a big chunk of the credit for turning Lombardi, Ruth, and other departed heroes into hot properties. His company, Curtis Management Group, has been cutting deals for survivors of dead stars for 16 years. Roesler's first clients were James Dean and Elvis Presley. Revenue from such deals, after Curtis takes its share of 40% to 45%, goes to family members or others named in the deceased's will.
FOUND MONEY. Fittingly, Ruth is the cleanup hitter of dead legends. Overall, "his [earning power] dwarfs any other sports personality we handle," says Roesler, who allows that some years the Yankee great's gross earnings have topped $1 million--far more than the career-high salary of $80,000 he earned in 1930. For their part, Ruth's survivors see the income as found money. "It has made such a difference," says Julia Ruth Stevens, the Babe's 79-year-old daughter. Since signing with Curtis about a dozen years ago, she has moved to a fashionable suburb of Phoenix and traded in her car. "It's a Volvo now instead of a Chevrolet," she says.
Some families are more selective than others. Heirs of Bobby Jones generally refuse to lend the name or image of the golfing immortal to ad campaigns. The few exceptions are product lines--including Callaway golf clubs and Hickey Freeman sportswear--sold under the Jones name. "Bobby didn't commercialize his name much while he was alive. To be true to his image, his heirs haven't been interested in doing a lot of licensing," says David J. Stewart, a lawyer for Jones's grandchildren.
Still, it's comforting for descendants of sports icons to know they can control the images of the deceased. Until Curtis stepped in, say some family members represented by the firm, they were at a loss to stop those who cheapened their champion's memory. "Nothing anyone can do is going to enhance my father's reputation, but they certainly can detract from it," says Vince Lombardi Jr., a motivational speaker in Seattle.
Clearly, not every advertiser can pass muster. But for those that do, there is one final plus to building a campaign around a long-gone hero: They don't have to deal with spoiled sports brats who show up late for shoots, demand the star treatment, and throw tantrums. These dead guys are a pleasure to work with.