03 May 2007

I see dead people… in prime time

(Cartoon by Peter Nicholson)

By Stephen Downes, as first published on Crikey! on 26 April 2007

In life, it took a lot to silence Steve Irwin. His unbridled enthusiasm for wildlife and environmental causes and his exuberant turn of phrase made him a magnetic presenter and 24-karat gold talent for US chat shows. And it seems that even death can’t keep the irrepressible Crocodile Hunter quiet.

Several times this week while watching evening TV, I have had the unnerving experience of being enthusiastically invited by Steve himself to visit Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. The first time I saw the ad, I thought it was some kind of tribute – I kept waiting for the “R.I.P.” message, the soft focus, the slow-mo footage and a few bars of John Williamson. But no, this is just a regular ad, apparently unaltered from before Irwin’s death last September, and now screening in Melbourne during prime time, a slot where I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it before.

You’d have to say there are few precedents for advertising messages from beyond the grave, especially when the departed spokesperson speaks directly to the viewer.

Although he died in 1989, the late John Meillion’s voice was sampled and re-engineered – with permission from his estate – so that he could keep reminding audiences right through the 1990s that “a hard-earned thirst needs a big cold beer... and the best cold beer is Vic”. But while his voice contributed great character to the brand, entire generations of VB drinkers would have had little or no knowledge of Meillion as an individual or perceived this as a personal endorsement.

On the other hand, Pauline Hanson – on video, direct to camera – told her fellow Australians that “if you are seeing me now, it means that I have been murdered”. Of course, it turned out she wasn’t actually dead at all.

Perhaps the most famous and chilling posthumous presenter was Yul Brynner. After his death from lung cancer in 1985, the American Cancer Society ran ads featuring footage from an interview with Brynner recorded just months earlier (you can see one here). He turned to camera, looked down the barrel and said "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Don't smoke, whatever you do, just don't smoke." This ad was especially powerful – spine-tingling even – because we knew he was dead (the ad starts with a “super” giving dates of his birth and death) and we realise that he knew he would be dead when the message screened.

You only have to watch the “In Memoriam” sequence at the Oscars each year to recognise the emotional power of images of famous and well-loved people who have recently passed on. Perhaps that’s why I have found it disquieting to watch ads featuring a healthy, “larger than life”, pre-stingray Steve Irwin still spruiking for Australia Zoo in his inimitable fashion.

Of course Steve’s memory and legacy will always be central to the marketing of Australia Zoo and a key attraction for visitors. But I have no doubt many consumers will find the Irwin family’s decision to run the same old ads with the same old Steve surprising and perhaps even inappropriate or disrespectful. After all, immediately after his death the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service withdrew the entire taxpayer-funded “Quarantine Matters” campaign for which Irwin was spokesperson “as a gesture of respect for Steve and his family” (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald).

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