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Pitches from Heaven

The Wright brothers may have been first in aviation, but there are plenty of celebrities who fly just as high when it comes to marketing from beyond the grave

Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Nathan Golub

industry

Every schoolkid in the U.S. knows this one. The story takes place in the winter of 1903, with a pair of Midwestern inventors launching a flimsy biplane into the brisk ocean winds above Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The flight was brief (12 seconds), but it helped usher in the age of air travel, and Orville and Wilbur Wright joined the likes of Lewis and Clark in that most American of mythical categories: the dauntless pioneer.

The Wright brothers have commanded reverence ever since they made aviation history more than a century ago. But thanks in large part to the conservatism of the Wright Family Foundation, Orville and Wilbur’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio, has been notably short on branded memorabilia—no bobblehead dolls here. Soon, however, aviation buffs will at least be able to pick up a tastefully branded travel bag via the Internet. Next month, a commercial enterprise called The Wright Brothers USA is set to launch a website selling “Aviation Cool” merchandise, hawking products ranging from bomber jackets to sunglasses, with brick-and-mortar outlets set to follow. The company has partnered with Shinola for a line of limited edition Wright Brothers Shinola bikes, and a deal has been inked for a line of Bremont watches, expected to retail between $20,000 and $30,000.

“The first name in aviation is now the first name in aviation fashion,” says Wright Brothers USA CEO David Lightle. “For the first time, the Wright brothers will be a stand-alone international brand.”

You could call The Wright Brothers USA company inventive (the company’s slogan, in fact, is “Invent Yourself”), but marketing dead celebrities—or “delebs”—is not exactly unknown territory. When Forbes listed 2013’s top-grossing celebrities, for instance, the late Michael Jackson topped the chart, with an estimated $160 million in endorsements; that was $35 million more than the still-breathing Madonna.

According to Lisa Soboslai, vice president of Corbis Entertainment in Seattle, the benefits of working with delebs aren’t limited to financial rewards. “With deceased icons, you have less risk,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about the Wright brothers getting into family drama.” Soboslai’s firm, which represents the Wright brothers and licenses the personality rights for the historical duo to be used commercially, also works with such late celebrities as Andy Warhol, Steve McQueen and Albert Einstein.

Even so, there are a number of knotty challenges involved in the deleb field—mostly concerning the matter of respect. While Einstein’s image has been used to sell everything from cars to computers, some advertisers push the boat out a little too far: A GM ad featuring the father of modern physics heavily muscled and tattooed caused a stink (and an image-rights lawsuit) a few years back. For Soboslai, even meddling with Einstein’s hair-do is a no-no. “That crosses the line,” she says.

As for figuring out where the line is—that can be tricky. When a hologram of Michael Jackson appeared onstage during the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, many fans responded with shudders rather than cheers. This posthumous performance was preceded by a 2012 Coachella festival gig by deceased rapper Tupac Shakur. (The creators of the Tupac hologram went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the airing of Jackson’s.) The big question here is how far is too far when it comes to cashing in on a dead celebrity’s likeness, and the answer is elusive.

One thing we do know is that deleb marketing is poised to grow even bigger and splashier in the future. CMG Worldwide, which helped resurrect Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong and James Cagney for a 1992 Diet Coke ad, is currently working on a hologram of the pinup star Bettie Page, which will come hither digitally during a Las Vegas burlesque show next year. “It’s literally like the stars are with us,” says the firm’s CEO, Mark Roesler. “The technology just keeps getting better and better.”

Indeed, an eerily lifelike rendition of the Wright brothers may one day wander the visitor center at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. “Down the road, we think it would be cool to have Wilbur and Orville standing over the entrance,” says Lightle.

Not that those involved in The Wright Brothers USA want to be too closely identified with the deleb industry. Proceeds from the enterprise will help fund the Wright Family Foundation’s preservation and educational efforts, they say; bobblehead dolls will not be part of the deal. When asked how, exactly, the company will go about marketing these hallowed figures, Lightle provides an immediate and simple response: “Carefully.”

Cristina Rouvalis, a Pittsburgh-based writer, is looking forward to her hologram doppelganger performing at her local karaoke bar.

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