By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/20/2007 5:46:47 PM ET 2007-06-20T21:46:47

In life, they were big, bankable and they feasted on fame.

In death, they’re still working, only now it’s as someone else’s meal ticket.

Whether they’re hawking hamburgers from the Great Beyond or plugging Pepsi from six feet under, deceased celebrities remain hot property. Some even have agents. Lucy, Elvis and the Duke have pitched lottery tickets, batteries and beer. Fred Astaire danced with a hand vac. Gandhi hawked an Italian telephone company.

But amid all that heavenly hustling, a survivor-led backlash is suddenly brewing.

In late May, when a Doc Martens magazine spread depicted Kurt Cobain, Joey Ramone and two other departed rockers wearing the boots in the after-life, some of their family members complained so loudly, Doc Martens killed the campaign and fired the ad’s creator. In New York, where a lawmaker wants to ban the unauthorized commercial use of dead legends, the heirs of Judy Garland, John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe and many more have added their muscle to that fight.

As Photoshopping and digital editing help marketers resurrect long-gone stars for a lucrative return to product endorsement, some survivors and estate managers seem to be drawing a hard, new line between respectful appreciation and milking someone’s memory for a quick buck.

“Sure, there are some (commercial opportunities) where we don’t mind doing these things — some that we do for profit and some for charity,” said Mickey Leigh, brother of Joey Ramone, who died in 2001. “But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And this is certainly a place where we would not have crossed over, no pun intended.”

Doc Martens’ boots-in-heaven ad was conceived in England where no laws govern the unauthorized commercial use of dead icons. In America, two states — New York and Wisconsin — do not ban the practice, according to CMG Worldwide, an Indianapolis-based property rights management firm. Doc Martens drew fire because the rockers’ families never were consulted or paid. For the survivors, though, the issue was about dignity, not dollars.

Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, called the ad “despicable” and said Cobain never would have agreed to it. Leigh, meanwhile, said Ramone never wore that brand of boots and, worse, was Jewish and did not believe in the concept of heaven.

“Not kosher,” said Leigh, who lives in New York. “I had heard that you could use deceased people’s images in the UK and I’d heard there were some states here (where that loophole existed), but I didn’t believe it. Now I know that’s the case.

“I would do whatever I could to help people to retain control over their loved ones,” Leigh said. “Doc Martens pulled the ad so quickly and issued an apology. A little progress has been made.”

Beyond image piracy, however, New York Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein is sensing another buzz among the survivors of famous folk – a shifting notion of what is proper and what is pure profit. She is sponsoring a bill that would give dead legends the same publicity-rights protections that now are granted to the living. In short, her bill would make it illegal in New York to use a deceased person’s image commercially without permission of the star’s family.

“I’m not in this because of some food fight (between heirs) over who gets the money,” Weinstein said. “We need to preserve and protect the dignity and the wishes of those who gave us their creative spirit during their lifetime. … There are just some things you don’t want to be associated with.”

Weinstein’s bill, expected to undergo a vote this week, was sparked by representatives of Marilyn Monroe’s estate. In March, a federal district court in New York ruled against a lawsuit brought by Monroe’s estate challenging the unauthorized sale of T-shirts bearing her photo. When Weinstein decided to tackle the issue, a slew of living celebrities and the heirs of some famously departed threw in their support: Al Pacino, Yoko Ono, Liza Minnelli, and the families or estates of Arthur Ashe, Malcolm X, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Jimi Hendrix.

“We got a letter from Liza Minnelli, who points out how her mother, Judy Garland, can (in New York) have her image, in a sense, stolen from her and used to promote products,” Weinstein said.

“Things have changed in the world. You can sit at the computer, plop them into a photo or put them into a video to use commercially,” Weinstein said. “I remember a (recent) commercial of Fred Astaire selling vacuums — a use his family said was undignified.”

That digital trickery coincides with a ballooning value for stars who have passed on. According to a 2006 Forbes magazine analysis, five dead icons each earned more than $20 million last year: Cobain, Elvis Presley, Charles M. Schulz, John Lennon and Albert Einstein. Monroe, who is represented by CMG Worldwide, pulled in $8 million in 2006.

“She’s synonymous with Hollywood and she’s global,” said Mark Roesler, chairman and founder of CMG. “At a company like ours … the bigger earners have international appeal. What (also) helps them become popular today is the fact that they were taken from us at an early age. That leaves a lot of room for speculation.”

In addition to several dozen living stars, CMG represents more than 100 dead entertainers, athletes and historical figures, from Will Rogers to James Dean to Andre the Giant. The company puts together more than 2,000 different business deals each year for its clients.

“It’s our job,” Roesler said, “to look after the careers and interests of these people, whether they are alive or not.”

Another icon who has sustained his career from the grave is Jerry Garcia, former Grateful Dead lead singer. There is his eternal music, of course. But there also is a wine that bears his name — J. Garcia — which has reached annual case sales of about 30,000. Beam Wine Estates, which launched the brand in 2003, using Garcia’s artwork on the bottle labels, holds a partnership with Garcia’s estate.

Was it important to Beam whether Garcia actually imbibed in chardonnay while alive? Or did the company simply view Garcia as an effective brand?

“It’s somewhere in between,” said Chris Lynch, Beam’s chief marketing officer. “There’s no absolute need for Garcia to have drunk wine. That’s really not the intent of the brand. The connection, in truth, was about his art. In the wine business, there’s a natural affinity between art and wine. I look at the kind of people who listen to music, drink wine and appreciate art — that was the genesis of the partnership.”

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