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Opinion: I See Dead People


This piece comes after an interesting and at times heated debate on social media, which followed the airing of a much lauded advert during the 2019 Super Bowl. The ad, seen here, repurposes an old Andy Warhol arthouse film in order to promote Burger King.

The question I posed to my creative colleagues was this: is it morally and ethically acceptable to appropriate the image of cultural icons, without the possibility of securing their consent, in order to sell 'stuff’?


Most people have probably seen the famous ‘Think Different’ commercial by Apple, below. This aligned Apple, a technology company, with deceased leaders like Gandhi, Einstein, Picasso, Amelia Earhart and Martin Luther King Jnr, amongst others. There is no doubting it’s brilliance and awards worthiness; it really is different, ground-breaking and breathtakingly clever in its simplicity of concept.

But it has always troubled me.

Because I have always wondered how Gandhi, a pacifist who led a nation of millions to freedom without confrontation or war (partition came later), would have felt about his image being used to sell very expensive PC’s. And how would Martin Luther King Jnr, a deeply religious man who led a subjugated race towards equality, have felt about promoting a company that has many questionable ethical practices?

We don’t know the answer.


But we do know that the ‘dead’ people in the ads didn’t have a choice. Maybe their estates did; maybe family members thought it was ok; but the individuals themselves couldn’t object. Gandhi died in 1948 and Martin Luther King Jnr died in 1968. ‘Think Different’ aired in 1997.

Online, many people in the debate thought it was O.K. to use Warhol, who famously loved the commercial world, but less so Gandhi, who didn’t. Which is fair enough.

But think about it differently (excuse the pun); Facebook owns a royalty-free worldwide license to all of the images you have ever posted on its platform and can use them as it sees fit. How will you feel if your recently deceased spiritual leader, parent, partner, child or friend unexpectedly appears in one of its ads?

simon case