May 17, 2011, 12:03 PM EDT
Bill Hicks once did a bit about ad and marketing guys that, while a bit on the harsh side, did tell some essential truths. the biggest one: ad and marketing guys can basically talk themselves into selling anything regardless of the facts on the ground. I’m reminded of this as I read about an ad agency trying to sell Joe DiMaggio image and legacy for various licensing agreements.
Which is fine as far as it goes. DiMaggio is an icon and as long as he’s not dancing with vacuum cleaners and there’s a bit of dignity involved, who’s to begrudge his family from making a few bucks? I do have to question the pitch, though:
But Wallrich Landi founder Lila Wallrich says there’s a “more altruistic” ambition as well: to promote the values DiMaggio personified by being a humble celebrity, team player and “straight-up citizen” who enlisted in the military during World War II and later founded a children’s hospital. The campaign also has a romantic angle, highlighting the ballplayer’s lifelong love for Marilyn Monroe.
“If all we do is sell some fast food,” Wallrich says of the campaign, “it will be a hollow victory.”
And what says “humble” more than a guy who, after being voted as such by the Sporting News, insisted on being introduced as baseball’s “Greatest Living Player” at personal appearances? And what says romance more than a marriage that ended in large part due to the man’s jealousy and the woman’s mental frailty, all of which led to a divorce on the stated grounds of “mental cruelty?” And while service to one’s country in wartime is a clear positive, DiMaggio’s service record is a bit more complicated than your average marketing campaign can truly capture, don’t you think?
But hey, as long as he’s not selling fast food, because that would stain the legacy.
Look, I don’t mean to slam Joe DiMaggio here. I’m merely pointing out the silliness of a complicated person’s legacy being used to sell broad concepts like humility and nobility and all of that and then to have those traits rub off on to various products. When DiMaggio served as a spokesman for a product like Mr. Coffee during his lifetime he was doing it as a man, making a more or less honest buck and letting his word and whatever good will he had with people to do the work to sell a product he said was a good one. When his larger-than-life image is being sold years after his death, however, and the idea is to use him as some sort of ideal of various virtues, that’s something different altogether.
This isn’t about selling out. Lots of people sell out. Heck, if the people from Maker’s Mark asked me to do testimonials for their product tomorrow I would. This is about simple effectiveness. About people themselves — or their heirs — tacking products onto the person’s image in some incidental, associative manner. That seems pointless to me because people are flawed beings, and it’s not too hard to see the flaws, even on someone as venerated as Joe DiMaggio.
But I’m not marketing expert. And maybe this is too fine a line to draw. It just seems to me that doing the sort of thing mentioned in this article is doubly insulting. Insulting to the actual complex humanity of DiMaggio — a man who would likely never hold himself up as some sort of ideal beyond his baseball pursuits — and insulting to consumers who are presumed to ignore everything they know about humanity and fall for such a pitch.
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