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The Selling of Joe DiMaggio

May 17, 2011, 12:03 PM EDT

Joe DiMaggio

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.

(via BTF)

  1. Charles Gates - May 17, 2011 at 12:22 PM

    They’re marketing the marketing. That’s it. Not that they’re doing a great job of it, but I think they’re trying to get in front of any negative PR related to marketing the image of a dead man (obviously) without his say so.

  2. vintage1496 - May 17, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    As both a fan of the Yankee Clipper and a marketer, I think your critique is spot-on. However, this is more or less the quintessence of advertising – ignoring the bad (spotty military service record, lack of humility) and highlighting the good (… umm… he play ball good?).

  3. yankeesfanlen - May 17, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    DiMaggio didn’t have many qualms about endorsements while playing- the eclectric assortment went from Wheaties to Chesterfields. Guess he wanted to diversify.
    Joltin’ Joe’s big disappointment after ending the 56-game hitting streak was that he hadn’t made it to his biggest payout- Heinz.

    ([OK, that was contigent on making it to 57]

  4. Jeremiah Graves - May 17, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    If the people from Maker’s Mark asked me to do just about anything, I’d sign off on it. I owe those cats for getting me through many a stressful work week.

    …and/or routine Tuesday night.

  5. Panda Claus - May 17, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    Craig, since you first mentioned that one story about two months ago, Pete Rose and Joltin’ Joe will forever be linked (in my mind, at least).

  6. frankvzappa - May 17, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    the great visionary Bill Hicks and the great game of baseball in one article: all seems suddenly right with the world, if only for a short time

  7. minnesconsin - May 17, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    I’m curious how Morris Engelberg fits into all of this. Engelberg was DiMaggio’s friend and lawyer, and is actually the executor of his estate. In the past, he’s been very difficult to work with and has object to the use of ANY photos of DiMaggio and Monroe in a commercial fashion. I believe the only “famliy” in DiMag’s will were his 2 grand-daughters who are not blood relation.


  8. purdueman - May 17, 2011 at 5:56 PM

    Di Maggio isn’t by far the “greatest baseball player ever”; if you don’t believe me (although I’ll stick with Babe Ruth as the man who is the greatest ever because he made baseball nationally relevant, with Jackie Robinson, who saved the game (long term), by finally breaking the color barrier, coming in right behind him… 1a and 1b if you will), just compare Di Maggio’s career stats with his career contemporary Ted Williams.

    Due to all of the media adulation that came with playing in New York (where they had 18 daily newspapers back in Di Maggio’s playing days), Di Maggio became a reclusive and very pompous ass. Di Maggio truly believed right up until the day he died that he was bigger than life, yet if I wanted to, I could take a wiz on him where he’s planted in a San Francisco graveyard and there isn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

    It’s just sad how the media can change and destroy people, but it’s also reality. The moron from France who just got caught allegedly forcing a maid to give him a blow job for example just blew his chance to become the head of a country (France). Regardless of whether the allegations are proved to be true or not, the media has already cooked his French goose long before his trial ever begins.

  9. quixoteswhore - May 18, 2011 at 4:43 AM

    Joltin Joe’s distinguished 56 hit streak does not include the number of times he hit Marilyn, does it? (Parenthetically, Monroe died the day Roger Clemens was born.)

  10. zff4 - May 18, 2011 at 8:25 AM

    Paraphrasing from memory, “Not olive oil or smelly grease but it’s water that Joe uses to slick his hair back. And he prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” (this from Life magazine)

    He was just “the Daig” to quite a few people even after he became an icon. God help you if you were black but being Italian wasn’t exactly a free pass. He indeed turned into a pompous jerk, but being idolized by the entire city of NY doesn’t often make angels…but he was golden on the field.

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