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Lou Gehrig, spokesman
Alcatel benefiting from use of legendary Yankee in new ad campaign

Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees – the most fabled franchise in baseball. He was the "Pride of the Yankees" and remains one of the best players in the history of the game. Gehrig continues to be an inspiration to young ballplayers and to those who suffer from the disease that bears his name.

Alcatel is a communications networking firm based in Paris.

See the connection?

If you don't, there's no need to fret. Alcatel is ready to help make the connection for you via its latest advertising campaign. In a recent commercial for the company, the Iron Horse stands before an empty Yankee Stadium delivering his famous "Luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech from July 4, 1939.

The stellar first baseman had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare neuromuscular disease, just two months prior to his emotional address. As he begins to speak to the vacant stadium, a voiceover bellows in.

"Before you can inspire, before you can touch, you must first connect," the voice says. "And the company that connects more of the world is Alcatel ... a leader in communication networks." Cut to a now-overflowing stadium with cheering fans. Gehrig assures them he has "an awful lot to live for," and the scene fades as the Alcatel logo graces a black screen.

If you're a baseball purist, the ad might be equal to sacrilege; if you're a marketing executive, you'd probably call it genius.

Value added recognition

The use of famous people and historic events in advertising has become popular among technology companies. The wireless communications company Cingular uses Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech in one of its ads, as does Alcatel in another spot similar to the Gehrig commercial.

Of course, Apple has been using famous faces in its "Think different" campaign for years, plastering the visages of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and rock icon John Lennon next to the ubiquitous Apple logo.

Other industries also have used famous dead people to promote their products in the past – Coors enlisted John Wayne in a series of commercials using old movie footage, and Dirt Devil had Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner in 1997.

"The use of famous figures such as Lou Gehrig represents a way for these types of companies to find a new way to stand above the clutter and garner that attention all advertisers seek," said Steve Vonder Haar, an advertising analyst at the Yankee Group.

"And if Alcatel can draw one added customer who buys millions of dollars of equipment spurred in part by the brand image, then the advertising has done its job," Vonder Haar said.

Despite the value of instant recognition when using a famous person like Gehrig, it's still a bit of a stretch to connect him with a communications company, analysts say.

"When you're dealing with well-known figures who passed away years ago, there is an increased level of risk. You have to wonder how consumers will perceive your use of a spokesman in supporting a product that did not even exist during their lifetimes," said Vonder Haar.

"Lou Gehrig probably would have no clue as to what fiber-optic networking is about, and therefore, you might get some backlash," he added.

But, Vonder Haar noted, ad agencies and companies commonly conduct exhaustive research before launching a large campaign like Alcatel's. If the agency and company see the advantages of the proposed ads outweighing the possible risks, then the campaign is given the green light. Thus, if baseball aficionados are offended by the Gehrig ad, but Alcatel's message is relayed clearly to its targeted audience of industry professionals, then the campaign is a success.

Aside from angering diehard baseball fans, other potential dangers decrease when using deceased people like Gehrig in ads, said Vonder Haar.

"These are people that can't be arrested for DWI or drugs, so you minimize some risks there," he said. "If you can choose a spokesperson that is respected and non-threatening and appeals to a broad portion of the target audience, then that person is ideal."

That human touch

Some analysts see other motivations for companies utilizing historic figures in ads.

"The real desire by these tech companies is to express themselves in a much more human way and to get an emotional connection with end users," said John Rubino, managing director of Landor Associates, a Seattle-based branding firm.

"To a certain degree, the Internet is a little more intangible than the standard consumer product, so you need to market it differently in that sense. That's what these types of commercials are trying to do," Rubino asserted.

But before the research and focus groups are wrangled and polled, companies like Alcatel and Cingular must consult the estate of the deceased spokesperson they wish to use. In the case of the Gehrig commercial, Alcatel contacted the Gehrig estate and sought permission to use the baseball legend's words and image. The estate granted Alcatel permission and has responded positively to the ad.

"During his lifetime, Lou Gehrig was the pride of the Yankees, known for his ability to touch the hearts and emotions of his fans both on and off the field," said George Pollack, executor of the Gehrig estate in a statement. "This commercial honors his legacy by connecting with a new generation of fans."

Alcatel's current ad blitz is a pure branding effort, said Brian Murphy, director of public relations for the company.

"To get the Alcatel name known is the whole strategy," he said. "If you watch the commercials, you probably wouldn't really know what Alcatel does. But by using someone like Gehrig, it makes you sit up and pay attention."

According to Murphy, the commercials have thus far boded well for business. Because the ads have generated so much media attention and sparked debate, Alcatel has achieved what it set out to do – garner name recognition. The campaign has been so successful, in fact, that the company has plans to produce more of the commercials this year, Murphy said.

"This is something we're going to see more often than in the past because of the technology advances," Rubino said. "As making these types of commercials becomes easier, I think we'll see the field of advertising in general pick up on the trend."


David Lawlor, CNNfn.com. June 11, 2001

Copyright © 2001 CNN America, Inc.. All rights reserved.