With deepfake videos on the rise, resurrecting dead icons may have just gotten easier. But before you start planning your next no-longer-with-us ambassador, these three campaigns will make you think twice about looking beyond the grave. 

Deepfakes. Those videos that use advanced AI technology to generate fake videos of people – celebrity or otherwise. They’re unbelievably convincing, and the potential repercussions of the technology are downright scary – as evidenced by this video of Barack Obama. Today, it’s never been easier to create a fake video of someone: get a computer, download some software, find some facial images of someone and a good video you’d like to swap them into, and invest a couple of hours. As long as you have the right elements, you can make anyone, dead or living, say – and do – anything you want them to.

Which brings us on to the issue of resurrecting dead celebrities for the purposes of marketing. While advertisers have been enamoured with using the faces of Elvis, Gene Kelly and Steve McQueen in their campaigns since the ’90s, deepfake technology has the potential to make bringing cultural icons back from the grave easier than ever.

But does that mean they should? These three dead celebrity campaigns suggest otherwise.

Bruce Lee, Johnnie Walker

In 2013, BBH China released its ‘Change the Game’ campaign for Johnnie Walker. The centerpiece: a painstaking recreation of martial arts superstar and actor Bruce Lee. Taking nearly a year to put together, Lee’s entire filmography was analysed by VFX studio The Mill, so that the ad would accurately represent “his physicality, muscular structure, the way he moved, spoke… every twitch and every scar,” as Johnny Tan, BBH China’s executive creative director said.

A computer sculptor tasked with building Lee’s facial bone and muscular structure, Lee’s daughter Shannon in an advisory role for added authenticity and the acting skills of Danny Chan were also called upon to bring the ad to life. And, eschewing the actor’s trademark athleticism and animalistic screams, BBH instead went for something more subdued (or boring) – a slow walk through a Hong Kong balcony at night.

But despite BBH’s best efforts in recreating Lee – and making his philosophy an integral part of the ad – audiences balked at the campaign. Not only did it feature the actor speaking Putonghua, (his native language was Cantonese), it completely brushed off the fact that he was teetotal, believing booze was bad for his body. Not the best idea for a whisky brand.

Audrey Hepburn, Galaxy

Another campaign from 2013, AMV BBDO created new footage of Hepburn working with UK-based VFX company Framestore. A “slow and tedious process” according to William Bartlett, one of Framestore’s visual effects supervisors, a composite of Hepburn was built using old photographs of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s actress, but it wasn’t right – missing out her real imperfections gave the likeness an unreal, animated quality.

The problems didn’t stop there. Two actresses were hired to bring Hepburn to life on location in Italy – but when the facial model was put on the real life performance that was captured, it didn’t look like her. “It worked in freeze frame but in motion, it just didn’t seem like her,” said Bartlett. “The actress acted as much like Audrey as she could, but we were surprised at how accurate that had to be. What we had at that time was not close enough, we had to add small animations.”

The end result was polished, perhaps too polished, but still not completely convincing. The Los Angeles Times even went as far as calling it “the creepiest TV commercial ever made”.  

Kurt Cobain, Dr. Martens    

Back in 2007, Dr. Martens found themselves in the middle of an advertising snafu. Its agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, created a campaign featuring the Nirvana frontman – as well as the Clash’s Joe Strummer, the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and the Ramones’ Joey Ramone – the brand’s iconic shoes on his feet, wearing a white robe and sitting on a cloud in heaven. In the corner, the headline: “Dr. Martens. Forever.”

While Dr. Martens’ chief executive David Suddens said that the published images of the rock icons had not been approved or commissioned, it turned out that one rogue employee had given permission for the ads to run in Fact, a small British music magazine, on a one-off basis. Another rogue employee from Saatchi & Saatchi passed the images on to a raft of US websites, spreading the images around the world.

“Coutney [Love] had no idea this was taking place and would never have approved such a use,” said Love’s publicist. “She thinks it’s outrageous that a company is allowed to commercially gain from such a despicable use of her husband’s picture.”

“We are really, really, really sorry,” grovelled Suddens, while Kate Stanners, Saatchi’s executive creative director, said: “We believe the ads are edgy but not offensive… It is our belief that they are respectful of both the musicians and the Dr. Martens brand.” Unsurprisingly, Saatchi & Saatchi was fired after the debacle.

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