NEW YORK – They've claimed Jesus wouldn't drive an SUV and JFK would support President Bush's tax cut. They've altered footage of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. (search) and Lou Gehrig (search), and shown Fred Astaire (search) dancing with a vacuum.
They are TV ads featuring famous figures in history, but there's one catch: All those pitching the messages in question are dead.
The trend is raising some eyebrows.
The King and Gehrig spots, done by the French telecommunications company Alcatel (search), drew strong controversy. Some objected to edited footage that erased the crowds listening to both King's “I have a dream” and Gehrig's “I am the luckiest man” speeches. Others were unhappy such revered deceased heroes were used to make a sale.
“It’s not really ethical,” said Belle Adler, a media ethics expert and assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “You’re promoting your product with a dead person who can’t say yes or no.”
But the ads were created and aired with the permission of the estates of both King and Gehrig. An Alcatel spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the company chose to feature the famed speeches because they resonate with viewers.
“The campaign was about connecting,” he said.
“President Kennedy cut income taxes, and the economy soared,” the ad voiceover declares.
The spots, which showed images of JFK next to those of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, incensed the president's brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. He wrote a letter to the group calling the ads “grossly inaccurate” and fuming that if JFK were alive today, “he would be outraged.”
The “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, launched by a Pennsylvania environmental group called the Evangelical Environmental Network (search), urged SUV drivers to put their vehicles in “park” because Jesus would prefer a more environmentally friendly car — like a hybrid.
The ads, which began running in limited markets in December, said too many vehicles were polluting and then wondered, "So if we love our neighbor and we cherish God's creation, maybe we should ask, 'What would Jesus drive?'"
“We think He is Lord of our transportation choices as well as all our other choices,” the Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, told The Associated Press. “When you need a new car, you should buy the most fuel-efficient one.”
But despite the fact that Christian Evangelical leaders were behind the ads, the campaign offended other Christian groups.
"I think the concept of linking Jesus to an anti-SUV campaign borders on blasphemy, and I regard it as a joke," the Rev. Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network said in a statement.
And media ethicists say using religious icons in advertisements is questionable.
"I think it’s suspect, exploiting a religious figure for your own political agenda," said Adler. "Not in terms of fooling people, because I think everyone knows Jesus wasn’t asked, but it’s not ethical in terms of advertising."
Another ad, for the National Basketball Association, shows an actor playing Frank Sinatra going into an NBA arena. The ad then shows actual concert footage of the singer making it appear Blue Eyes himself was belting out a tune during the half-time of a basketball game.
Other companies have latched onto a similar advertising strategy. Dirt Devil showed Fred Astaire dancing the cha-cha with a vacuum cleaner, and Coors made John Wayne (search) the star of a series of its spots.
Michael McCarthy, an advertising and marketing reporter for USA Today, said the historical-figure gimmick is popular because it instantly attracts attention — a must in a 30-second TV spot.
“The purpose is to use well-known icons that would really make an impact on viewers,” he said. “But the question is, with dead icons, are you offending viewers?”
USA Today’s “ad track poll” revealed that 21 percent of consumers disliked the King Alcatel commercial — above the ad track disapproval average of 13 percent.
Adler said the stunt is ethically problematic because it could make people believe the historical figure actually did support the cause or product advertised.
“There is a real danger there — it’s not appropriate,” she said. “When you blur it so much that people come away with a distorted version of reality, you're treading in bad waters.”