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The trouble with having some famous person endorsing your products or even becoming associated with them by accident is that they can — and often will — say or do things that adversely affect your reputation. How good it would be to have a celebrity on board who could be guaranteed to be the epitome of discretion, always there but always on message, or at least never off it. No risk of embarrassing faux pax, sudden disappearances to dry out, or upstaging winners at awards ceremonies.

This is part of what lies behind a slang term of the marketing and entertainment business that has recently started to appear in media addressed to the wider world: deleb, short for “dead celebrity”. A recent edition of the US television programme 60 minutes found that there’s a lot of money to be had representing famous dead people — everybody from Elvis to Einstein.

On 29 October 2009 newspapers reported Forbes magazine’s annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. This put Yves Saint Laurent at the top, followed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with Michael Jackson coming third. The income of these delebs (Michael Jackson had already earned $72m since his death in June 2009) proves the truth of the old saying — sometimes death really can be a good career move.

“Steve McQueen is a legend that many celebrities like to emulate, but few do,” said Diana Brobmann, senior manager, new business development and product licensing at GreenLight. “The use of Dead Celebs (or as I call them ‘Delebs’) such as McQueen, continues to increase in the marketplace.”

Licensing.biz, 19 Jun. 2008.

Images of deceased stars have long been used in advertising. The most recent trend is for digital enhancement of images, seamlessly integrating “delebs” into current situations and, in some cases, putting words into their mouths.

Marketing Week, 30 Apr. 2009.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Nov. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-del1.htm
Last modified: 14 November 2009.