RIP Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper, Reluctant Ad Pitchmen

A tale of two celebrity spokesmen.

Gary Coleman for CashCall: “No one else would lend me money, not even my relatives.” Funny or sad?

Some people think stars die in threes. If so, it’s often tough to figure out when to start and stop counting. Not this time.

The demise on consecutive days of Gary Coleman, 42, and Dennis Hopper, 74, has left many people expecting a third celebrity death is imminent. The two actors became stars at early ages, then ad pitchmen later in life.

Dennis Hopper looks up 'retirement' in a spot for Ameriprise. Would you take financial advice from an aging alcoholic anarchist?

Coincidentally, in their roles as celebrity endorsers both offered financial advice. But whether either star was effective as a corporate spokesperson is debatable.

Gary Coleman, who died Friday in Utah, became famous as a child on the TV series “Diff’rent Strokes” when it debuted in 1978. He was plagued with kidney disease—the cause of his permanently stunted stature—as well as legal and financial problems.

Gary Coleman: another love-hate relationship with advertising.

AdFreak reports, appropriately enough, on Coleman’s “love-hate life in advertising.”

You had to feel bad for Gary Coleman when he was reduced to shilling for CashCall.com in 2007. The companies that hired the former child star toward the end of his life didn’t have much respect for him, and Coleman, after years of financial struggle and brushes with the law, couldn’t afford much for himself. Still, it was advertising that gave Coleman his early break, with his Chicagoland spots for Harris Bank first introducing viewers to the lovable kid who would become Arnold Jackson on Diff’rent Strokes. That character made him famous, and “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” was the “Where’s the beef?” of ’80s sitcoms. But despite his success, he had chronic financial woes, not all of his own making (his parents and former manager ripped him off), and was forced to return to advertising on a level that was beneath him (yes, even at 4-foot-8). The CashCall ads proved Coleman could laugh at himself, but it was pained laughter. That pain has now been eased. Gary Coleman died today at age 42.

According to the Associate Press, Coleman said in 2001 that he preferred earning money from celebrity endorsements. “Now that I’m 33, I can call the shots. … And if anybody has a problem with that, I guess they don’t have to work with me.”

Gary Coleman and Mary Carey: the child star and porn star as candidates for governor.

The AP also noted that “Coleman was among 135 candidates who ran in California’s bizarre 2003 recall election to replace then-Gov. Gray Davis, whom voters ousted in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Coleman, who advocated drastic steps for California’s faltering economy such as lowering income taxes and raising sales tax, came in eighth place with 12,488 votes, or 0.2 percent, just behind Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt.”

Yet despite all his problems, it’s hard not to imagine Gary Coleman could have played a better California governor than the other actor currently in the role.

Here’s Gary Coleman for CashCall:

“No one else would lend me money, not even my relatives.”

Dennis Hopper: rebel with a commercial clause.

Everyone needs to work. But film director and actor Dennis Hopper, who died Saturday morning, never seemed the type to “sell out” by doing commercials for The Man. Hopper had long ago kicked alcohol and drugs, but he never kicked back. Who knew what his reasons were for turning pitchman?

In a review entitled “Wrong Icon, Right Tone,” curmudgeonly ad critic Bob Garfield of Advertising Age ponders why Saatchi & Saatchi NY picked Hopper to pitch retirement planning for Ameriprise Financial Corp:

Dennis Hopper! A drug smuggler in “Easy Rider.” A brutal pervert in “Blue Velvet.” A sociopathic bomber in “Speed.” Not only is Hopper an icon of drug-addled, subversive, late-’60s counterculture, but his off-screen life hasn’t been especially orderly, either. So of course he is now fronting for freakin’ Wall Street.

Because, we suppose, Squeaky Fromme wasn’t available.

Putting aside the weird sellout vibe it produces (let’s just say that those ’60s dreams weren’t about bond yields and beach houses), this casting presumes that all leading-edge boomers identify with, or at least fondly recall Hopper’s transgressive roles and his generally schizoid persona. This is a mistake. Not everyone from 1969 wanted to stick it to The Man.

There’s also the question of how little the ad works to identify Ameriprise, which nobody has ever heard of. This spot is a classic example of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, falling so in love with star power that it neglects the brand itself.

Here’s Hopper on retirement investing in a spot for Ameriprise:

“’To withdraw, to go away, to disappear’: That’s how the dictionary defines retirement!”

At least Dennis Hopper didn’t retire. He just rode off into the sunset.

Do you think Gary or Dennis even liked being commercial pitchmen?

How effective do you think their commercials were, either for their own personal brands or their sponsors? I think it’s a mixed bag on both questions.

Perhaps thankfully, neither is likely to be remember for their commercial work. What’s your take?

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3 Responses to RIP Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper, Reluctant Ad Pitchmen

  1. Pingback: RIP Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper, Reluctant Ad Pitchmen | rssblogstory.com

  2. Speaking of not only celebs dying in threes, but celebs with something to hawk, consider Art Linkletter as the first of the Grim Reaper’s latest triad. Recently deceased Linkletter acted as pitchman, helping his buddy Walt Disney promote Dismalland, The Tragic Kinkdom and, according to a friend of mine, representing a real-estate development firm that built a tract in Irvine’s University Park. Now, put your brain in the Twilight Zone for a moment by imagining a luncheon meeting in the late 90s attended by Linkletter, Hopper and Coleman. Yep, just PICTURING that outlandish rendezvous can probably make your noggin implode…

    • Dave, thanks for reminding me about Linkletter. That’s exactly what I meant when I said it was tough to know when to start and stop counting dead-celeb trios! If only Art could’ve held on for one more day, it would have been more obviously a threesome by have three celebs expiring over three consecutive days. I guess I’m just counting-challenged.

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