Ad Rant: Chris Farley's brother responds
"Because I miss my brother so much, seeing him in a new creative light and hearing that great, taunting laugh of his once more -- it certainly doesn't ever get old. At least to me," writes Thomas Farley Jr., who is managing director and president of the non-profit Chris Farley Foundation.
Tom Farley confirmed via e-mail that the post comment #1048 was from him, and sent along contact information for the foundation as well for purposes of double-checking.
The ad created a firestorm that led to Spade making a public apology of sorts. At the same time, many of Farley's fans have spoken up to say, in essence, what Tom Farley said: they'd rather see Chris in a clip from any movie he made rather than worry about whether the ad was a manipulative use of their hero to sell a commodity.
The ad juxtaposes Spade's pitch for the satellite TV company with a scene from Tommy Boy, a movie in which he co-starred with Chris-who died in 1997 at the age of 33 from a drug overdose. Thanks to technology, the ad makes it look as if the Spade of today is right there in the scene alongside his former buddy.
The battle over the use of dead celebs to hawk products continues, but there is no getting around that some uses of dead celebs "feel" right, while others feel disrespectful or opportunistic. While there is always a profit motive at stake in advertising-DirecTV doesn't spend a fortune on an ad if they think it won't boost sales-profit alone is not the litmus test for "tacky."
Clearly, David Spade was paid for his work here, and no one is arguing that he shouldn't be. Chris's brother, while not saying whether his foundation was actually paid to give their blessing for the ad, says that the family does not participate in residuals from the use of Tommy Boy clips, and that when the family does receive compensation for things like this, "the payments are minimal at best."
Tom Farley also points out that the studio gets all of the residual revenue from his brother's work, and not his estate. Payments are only provided to the family as a courtesy, he wrote in his comment.
However, my original Ad Rant focused more on the judgment call than the paychecks involved. The Chris Farley Foundation accepted $25,000 in 2006 for the use of Chris Farley's likeness a series of billboards for a medication used in addiction treatment, and that makes sense; after all, the foundation's mission statement says it is "dedicated to the prevention of substance abuse."
At the time, Tom appeared on Matt Lauer's show and referred to Chris's "brand assets." That's the thing about dead celebs; they are worth something-sometimes more in death than in life -- and families and foundations have the ability to sue to prevent someone else from cashing in.
On the Chris Farley Foundation Web site, Tom's bio says: "His experience developing strategic brand and sponsorship programs were instrumental in building the Foundation's unique communications assets, including the 'Chris Farley' brand." Tom said at the time that bobble-head dolls and ringtones were out, anti-addiction meds in; that was his litmus test for tacky.
While the DirecTV ad is certainly not a misuse of Chris Farley, it's more like a "non-use." The implication is that if you subscribe to this product, you will get to see movies that include Tommy Boy. That's a pretty generic promise, since another one of the company's ads shows a clip from the horror movie Poltergeist (with a now-dead child star), and it strains the imagination to think what these two movies have in common (other than starring now-deceased actors).
In other words, DirecTV shows hundreds of movies. It has no personal stake in burnishing Chris Farley's memory. The message at the core of the DirecTV ads is more like, "There's something for everyone," not "It never gets old."
If you look closer -- and this is really the fun part for Ad Rant -- you would see that using a live actor to extol a movie in which the co-star is dead is like saying that this satellite TV company will give you more than just a You Are There nostalgia. It raises the dead and lets you walk among them again. This brings the phrase "the medium is the message" into a whole new realm of possibility.
Therein likes the "ick" factor. The ad plays off the sentimentality of the well-known Spade-Farley friendship. The ad doesn't exist merely to entertain. Millions of dollars are at stake when a 30-second ad tries to worm its way into your brain and plant the seed of a desire to spend money.
This is not a Public Service Announcement or a pro-bono gift to Farley fans. It doesn't even promise to put Tommy Boy at the top of the rotation. The use of Spade is meant to add a personal connection to movie-watching that you just can't get from seeing a bunch of stand-alone clips.
A lot of what is "tasteless" is in the taste of the beholder, naturally. So, feel free to disagree with the following breakdown of how a few uses of dead celebrities stack up:
GOOD: Natalie Cole singing a "duet" with her dead father. (Okay, slightly creepy, but has artistic merit)
ICK: Rosa Parks hawking Chevys
GOOD: Fred Astaire's image on a collectors' DVD edition of some of his brilliant movies
ICK: Fred Astaire hawking Dirt Devil vacuums
GOOD: David Spade introducing a Chris Farley Movie Marathon, should a satellite channel ever decide to hold one
ICK: Well, you tell me ...