Alcatel, the French telecommunications company that outraged some civil rights leaders for using the late Martin Luther King Jr. in a national ad, plans to rise again with Lou Gehrig in a new TV commercial. Alcatel is licensing the rights to Gehrig's famous 1939 farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. In the tearful goodbye, he called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth" despite the advance of the fatal disease that bears his name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It is believed Alcatel will alter the Iron Horse's speech the same way it altered King's landmark 1963 "I Have A Dream" address: by digitally removing the spectators.
Attorney George Pollack, longtime executor of the Gehrig estate, confirmed signing off on a deal for Alcatel to use the speech. "I hope and wish they do as good a campaign for Lou as they did for Dr. King," says Pollack, 86. He believes Alcatel is paying the "largest fee" ever to use Gehrig's image. Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, which handles offers for the estate, says Alcatel is paying "six figures."
The Gehrig estate gets to OK the commercial before it airs. "That's a necessary condition of any deal," Pollack says. Most of the money goes to charities named by Gehrig's late widow, Eleanor, such as the Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Research Center in New York.
Brad Burns, senior vice president of communications for Alcatel Americas in Plano, Texas, would not confirm the Gehrig spot. He says Alcatel will use more famous images in the "Speeches" campaign. "This is not just a Dr. King campaign. We will roll out new (ads) soon," Burns says. Arnold Worldwide, Boston creates the ads.
The use of dead celebrities in ads is causing controversy. Critics call it macabre commercial exploitation. Defenders say that heirs and estates have a right to use their property as they see fit. Some figures make more money dead than alive.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, believes Alcatel is turning King's dream into an ad nightmare. The group wants Alcatel to pull the TV and print ads, even though the King family approved the ads, Burns says.
Burns argues the ads "bring King's message to a new generation." Commercial Alert Director Gary Ruskin disagrees: "Alcatel is cheapening a great man and a great speech."
Despite protests, images of the dead seem to be a trend. A half-dozen new Citigroup ads star more dead icons than live ones, including John Lennon, Louis Armstrong, Helen Keller and Audrey Hepburn. And AIG is using baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson in an ad.
"Our business is picking up," says CMG's Roesler, whose company makes more than $25 million annually selling rights to more than 200 celebrities such as Gehrig, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
What's their appeal? "They won't get arrested next week, go on the disabled list or suffer three flops in a row. We know what we're getting," says Ryan Schinman, head of Platinum Rye Entertainment, which matches endorsers with corporate clients.
Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. April 17, 2001
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