What's the quickest way to regain your popularity if you are a disgraced or has-been celebrity?
Prior to Michael Jackson's 2009 death, the controversial singer was widely disliked by American consumers. More than 94 percent of the American population was familiar with him, yet 65 percent of people felt negatively about him, according to research conducted by Marketing Evaluations, the company that calculates Q-scores, or the likability ratings of celebrities.
"That's as bad as it gets. He was detested by a super majority of the population," explains Marketing Evaluations CEO Steven Levitt.
But following Jackson's untimely death in 2009, 34 percent of Americans who are familiar with the singer say they feel positively about him today and only 27 percent feel negatively.
Death managed to make Jackson palatable again.
In the weeks prior to former child star Gary Coleman's recent death online commenters referred to him as an "idiot," a "loser," and "annoying as hell." After Coleman died on May 28 from an intracranial hemorrhage, he was referred to as a "poor troubled soul," a "cool entertainer," and a "funny and good actor."
"I think we all want to think well of the dead. We think well of the dead we know personally as well as people who we know only through television and movies," said Bonnie Fuller, Editor in Chief of the celebrity news website HollywoodLife.com, and the former editor of celebrity magazines Us Weekly and Star. "When a person like Brittany Murphy or Gary Coleman passes away, it brings back memories of your own life that you associated with them, watching them when you were young, and that triggers nostalgia and warm feelings."
The rise in likability and empathy with a deceased celebrity is also due to the pace of celebrity news dissemination across a variety of platforms.
"Because of technology, we have become much more voyeuristic now that we can consume our news whenever and wherever we want," explains Kelly McBride, Ethics Group leader with the Poynter Institute of Journalism. "We don't have to wait for Entertainment Tonight to come on or to get People magazine. We have access to these stories all the time and that has made all of these dead celebrities more news worthy. The PerezHilton.com and TMZ.com franchises of celebrity news provide nearly real-time updates on every celebrity tragedy."
The traffic on celebrity news sites spikes whenever there is news of a celebrity death, no matter how obscure or past their prime that celebrity may be.
"Even the smaller celebrity names, the Rue McClanahans, the Gary Colemans and the Corey Haims, they still get big numbers for us. The nostalgia of an old recognizable name kicks in with the surprise and it just brings in incredible numbers for us," says AOL PopEater Editor-in-Chief Jason Kaufman.
Interest is piqued even more if a celebrity dies under what are portrayed as suspicious circumstances.
"If foul play is suspected in their death, we become even more obsessed, and appoint ourselves their protectors in an effort to avenge the wrongdoer who has betrayed them," said psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman.
In addition to the traffic surge, sites also sees an outpouring of positive sentiments surrounding celebrity death, no matter how reviled that person may have been in life.
"It's actually very touching because we usually see people weigh in from all different angles, negative and positive and generally there is no debate when someone passes away," said Kaufman. "It is all love and appreciation."