From Johnny Cash to Andy Warhol, dead celebrities have never been more popular in advertising. (Last year, even Rosa Parks showed up in an ad for Chevy pickup trucks.)
One reason why: Advertisers don’t have to worry that the spokesperson will “pull a Lohan” in the afterlife.
You can scratch that. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia is finding out the hard way that even a superstar that’s been dead for 3.2 million years can stir up controversy.
The celeb is Lucy—perhaps the world’s most famous fossil—who is the star of “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia,” a six-year traveling exhibition designed to showcase the cultural richness of Ethiopia and promote the country as a tourist destination.
Sounds like a fantastic idea on paper. But as turns out, not everyone loves Lucy. At her coming-out party in Houston last month, creationists decried using a public venue to promote evolution and Ethiopian citizens protested moving Lucy’s remains out of their country.
It gets worse. Famed paleontologist Richard Leakey called the show a “form of prostitution” and both the Smithsonian and New York’s Museum of Natural History have refused to participate in the multi-city exhibition, saying the precious bones are far too fragile to travel.
Predictably, the publicity has helped generate record crowds at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. But the flap about Lucy is overwhelming Ethiopia’s cultural message and may be tarnishing, rather than polishing, its brand.
It just goes to prove: When it comes to celebrity endorsers, you always have to beware of skeletons coming out of the closet.