Tongue money

Francis Scialabba


Return of the night of the living spokesmen

Marketers are struggling with the ethics of using dead celebrity pitchmen.

· 7 min read

Alex Hammond knows every wrinkle, mole, and skin tag on Albert Einstein, just so long as it's above the belt. Not a former lover or personal dermatologist to the famous physicist, Hammond is a digital artist who’s brought Einstein back from the dead—to star in a series of commercials for a British utilities campaign.

Hammond serves as joint head of 3D at The Mill, the production studio behind the ads. The Mill also worked with creative agency TBWA\Chiat\Day for the return of Bob Ross, who died in 1995—but was seen shilling for Mountain Dew in March.

In both instances, the estates of the zombie spokesmen gave the go-ahead, but The Mill’s work is part of a growing trend of using deepfakes, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and other technology to reanimate the deceased in advertising.

It’s never been easier to do—and the outcomes have never looked more convincing. But advertisers are weighing the ethical nuances of using dead pitchmen and figuring out where to draw the line.

Monster Mash

Bringing the dead to life for the sake of commerce is an old trick on Madison Avenue. Dirt Devil put a vacuum in Fred Astaire’s hands (he died in ’87) for a spot that ran a decade later. Years after their deaths, Humphrey Bogart (who passed away in ’57) and Louis Armstrong (’71) appeared in a 1991 Diet Coke spot starring Elton John.

But anyone with a set of eyeballs would know those crude splice jobs and stagecraft can’t compare to today’s capabilities. The Mill, for instance, brought Einstein to life using several techniques, including “4D volumetric capture technology.”

Hammond said the company used “literally anything we could get our hands on,” including YouTube clips and photographs, to capture Einstein’s likeness, then placed a CGI mask on an actor to create the spots.

To recreate Bob Ross, Mountain Dew and The Mill used a body double—complete with the artist’s iconic ’fro as a wig—along with CGI and facial mapping.

Some might call these deepfakes, a term coined in 2017 that has broadly come to mean replacing one person’s features with another on screen. More specifically, deepfakes use artificial intelligence to achieve the desired effect.


For the most part, marketers avoid using the word “deepfake” because of its negative connotations. It’s often associated with porn; a 2019 study by a firm called Sensity found that 96% of deepfake videos are pornographic, with many featuring female celebs who’ve had their faces pasted onto actors without their consent. Plus, there’s still no meaningful legislation placing barriers on the technology and its use, although laws have been introduced.

Ad agencies and companies that work on such campaigns tend to skirt around the word, describing their manipulations as "digi-humans" and "synthetic media" instead.

In 2019, the Salvador Dalí Museum brought back the museum’s namesake for a full-motion video called Dalí Lives with deepfake technology, allowing the artist to greet visitors 30 years after his death.

“We don’t love that word [deepfakes] to be honest, because it does have a negative connotation,” Kathy Greif, chief operating officer of The Dalí Museum, told Fast Company. “We do think we might be the first, or certainly the first museum, to use this in a really positive way. We’re certainly proud of that, but the word is a little uncomfortable.”

But how, exactly, companies reconstruct the dead is of little consequence to those watching. “If consumers can't tell the difference between a deepfake and digitally putting on a mask, then it doesn't really matter,” Tom Meyvis, a marketing professor at NYU, told Marketing Brew.

For the Ross ad, the deception is the punchline—the fake in deepfake. In other words, it’s not so much about how advertisers are doing it, but that they’re doing it at all.

“There's always a sensitivity around the ethics of bringing someone back digitally, and let's face it, some of the tech [has] proven that it can be done very well now,” Hammond told us. The more convincing it becomes, the more sinister it gets, in a way. It’s not a caricature of that person; it’s a real representation of them.”

Balancing act

Even as the rules are still being written, brands know it’s a bit of an ethical minefield.

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Nicole Portwood, Mountain Dew’s vice president of marketing, told The Drum there’s “fine line between honouring someone and making it feel self-serving,” while discussing the brand’s Bob Ross push. “We wanted to recreate rather than parody Bob, and we never would have done this without the approval and partnership of the Bob Ross Company.”

Even if a brand gets formal approval from a celebrity’s family or estate, that’s not the same as the actual individual giving the okay. “They don't get to make a choice about whether they want to be involved in these ads,” Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University, told Marketing Brew. “This deprives people of autonomy...Shouldn't you have a right to decide how you're perceived, whether you're alive or after?”

Jason Carmel, chief data officer at marketing agency Wunderman Thompson, told us he hasn’t pitched the concept to clients. If he did, he’d approach it carefully.

“I have a VERY cautious view of the circumstances where this tech would be OK to use. There's an authenticity problem with using the likenesses of dead people to sell products. So, the purpose of the ad would have to transcend pure commerce,” he told us via email.

In 2019, Dentsu International considered using deepfakes in a campaign for Budweiser that celebrated Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday. But the agency decided against it. It was “too expensive” and “too unknown,” Dave Meeker, head of design and innovation at Dentsu International, told Marketing Brew.

“The bigger the brand, the more potential PR issues that brand faces,” Meeker said. “They all look at it and go, ‘I think we need to talk to our lawyers.’”

Liz Miller, vice president and principal analyst for the consulting firm Constellation Research, told us brands should ask themselves if they have the “empathy factor turned on” when resurrecting celebrities.

“AI and ethics will always come down to the question of, ‘Just because we can do it, should we do it?’ And it's a question that marketers, sadly, don't ask enough,” she said.

Not so fast

Even celebrities who are still alive have qualms about veering into deepfake territory.

Take Kenny Mayne, very much still alive, who was the face (pun intended) of a popular deepfake campaign last year. Mayne, a longtime ESPN personality, played himself in a State Farm ad that ran during “The Last Dance,” the network’s documentary series about Michael Jordan.

The catch? He played a younger version of himself—22 years younger, to be exact. In the ad, a ’90s version of Mayne is seen using words like “lit” and mentioning the infamous 2012 Mark Sanchez Butt Fumble.

The decision to even attempt the deepfake was the result of a last minute production change, since the pandemic shuttered a production shoot on the streets of Chicago. When he heard the pitch, Mayne was unsure.

“My first thought was [about] the weirdness of doing it, given the notion of deep fakes for nefarious reasons,” he told Adweek last November. It helped, obviously, that Mayne was heavily involved in the shoot. The spot was a hit, no doubt helped by its connection to the documentary, landing on several best-of lists for 2020.

Jason Campbell, executive creative director at Translation, the agency behind the “Last Dance” ad, obviously felt comfortable using a deepfake in this instance. But he told us marketers need to be mindful of the way they land in culture—especially when they involve someone who isn’t alive. He wasn’t exactly a fan of the Bob Ross spot.

“I don’t know if I would use it like that. I don't know if that's the right way to leverage the technology,” Campbell said. “If it seems weird, it probably is weird.”

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