Merchandising after death -- How marketers cash in on dead celebs such as Elvis, Greta Garbo, and Steve McQueen

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated August 18, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s a pop quiz: $1 billion is (a) the Waterworld grosses that Kevin Costner dreams of late at night; (b) Courtney Love’s America Online bill; (c) the amount raked in by the images of Steve McQueen, John Belushi, and other dead celebrities last year alone.

The answer, of course, is c. Last year, the revenues from the calendars, ashtrays, milk baths, and other assorted tchotchkes licensed by celebrity estates surpassed the national budget of Togo. Casper, it seems, is not the only ghost with points.

”A star is always a star,” says Peter Arnell, the Manhattan-based ad exec who brought back Marilyn Monroe for a Chanel No. 5 commercial. ”The words star and dead don’t go together.”

Today, merchants have moved beyond James Dean-type totems and are mining lesser, but still profitable, celebrity territory. Store shelves now sag with Belushi calendars and products from other late great entertainers such as McQueen leather jackets, Boris Karloff watches, and Carmen Miranda figurines. In fact, one of these stars could be the next King of Merchandising — a title now held by, you guessed it, Elvis Presley. Since the King’s death in 1977, his estate has bloated from about $7 million to more than $100 million.

As the marketplace fills up, dead stars are taking a cue from their still-breathing counterparts: They’ve acquired agents, lawyers, and managers. The CAA and ICM of the corpse trade are Curtis Management Group and the Roger Richman Agency, which together represent more than 100 estates. Recently, CMG quashed a line of unlicensed James Dean underwear in Australia. But they are now confronting a challenge. Two years ago, Sony formed a licensing arm, Sony Signatures, which has already poached estates — including Belushi’s — from other firms and apparently dangled several million dollars in front of the Marilyn Monroe estate, hoping to entice it to sign up as well. ”When you have a growing trend and significant revenue,” says Dell Furano, president of Sony Signatures, ”you’re going to have competition.”

Back in the late ’70s, you could generally get away with plastering any old dead celebrity’s face on your product. As a result, you could find such tacky treats as greeting cards featuring vials of Elvis ”sweat” and celebrity toilet paper. But when an unauthorized W.C. Fields poster — featuring a naked look-alike of the sour comedian, centerfold-style — came out in 1979, Fields’ unamused descendants fought and won. Not long after, California passed the strict Celebrity Rights Act, which protects against unauthorized exploitation of a celebrity’s image.

But some people believe the only protection is to establish a trademark — and then use it. ”We are not in this for the money,” says Derek Reisfield, great-nephew of Greta Garbo, whose family has trademarked the actress’ name and has okayed a tasteful line of Garbo-inspired clothing in part to prevent schlockmeisters from cashing in on the late recluse.