The Controversy With Pixelated Pitchmen

If Bruce Lee were alive today, what would he command as a pitchman for top brands? For comparison sake,  Tiger Woods drove $78.1 million over the last year from prize money, endorsements, appearance fees and golf course design work.

Conversely, Oprah made $165 million dollars last year attributed to O: The Oprah Magazine, spin-off shows like The Dr. Oz Show and a radio deal with Sirius.

Lee was charismatic, drawing universal appeal across race, ethnicity and geography. Shrines built to his athleticism, it’s easy to imagine brands such as Nike making him the face of a “Just Do It” campaign. If I close my eyes, I could imagine the swoosh on the yellow jumpsuit, the voiceover with his famous quote “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

See, Bruce Lee was on brand. Drawing parallels to his personal mantra, “Just Do It” means don’t think, don’t ask, don’t talk about it, don’t regret it, just do it. The visual display of Lee’s 1″ punch at say 4700 frames per second, alongside this motto coincide with this notion. Lee could have been the ultimate Nike pitchman.

But what happens when you’re off brand? That’s the current controversy surrounding Johnnie Walker’s tribute to the greatest martial artist to ever live. Considered polemical by some, Lee comes to life, with a 3D image of his face superimposed upon another man, Hong Kong actor Danny Chan. The creative team worked diligently to recreate over 250 of his facial expressions.

The ad didn’t just require high precision – which it accomplished. it needed to be credible- which it also accomplished.

And maybe therein lies the issue. Johnnie Walker brought Bruce Lee back to life. The work so well done, it’s indistinguishable from the reality of the fact he hasn’t been alive for 40 years. For all intents and purposes, the advertisement should be a strong player in Cannes. So why are so many fans viscerally offended?

Because Bruce Lee didn’t drink alcohol.

Yet the brand found value in what Lee stood for.

Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon, hired as a consultant by the whiskey company,  has been vocal in defense of the likeness in the commercial, referring to it as a tribute. Additionally she mentioned to the South China Morning Post, that alcohol wasn’t shown in the 90 second ad and that her father “…did not have a problem with people who drink occasionally…He was never knocking drinks out of people’s hands if they were having an enjoyable time…”

Lee isn’t the first to be enshrined as a digital copy of one’s self. There was ConAgra’s attempts at resuscitating Orville Redenbacher, and Coachella bringing Tupac out on stage to perform with Snoop Dogg. Even Michael Jordan got to play one-on-one with himself during a Gatorade commercial.

However in those instances, belief wasn’t suspended, it was just on brief pause. Johnnie Walker, in my opinion, brought Lee back from the grave to help them sell whiskey. More so, they used his likeness to sell whiskey while speaking Mandarin – Lee’s native language was Cantonese.

Brands need to be reminded that the stewards of the brand can be as cherished by the public as the brand itself. Johnnie Walker uses Lee’s infamous “Longstreet” monologue as inspiration for its voiceover,  concluding as the digitized Lee stares intensely at the camera to “Be water, my friend”.

While the ad is based around these famous lines, using the theme of the power of water as a parallel for the glory and stature of the icon, it’s easy to see another link in a twist of unintended irony, between water and pixels.

Running water never grows stale. Let’s hope that the same can be said for the future of advertising.

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