Hawking From the Grave: a Tribute or a Disgrace?

Hawking From the Grave: a Tribute or a Disgrace?ABC News
Chris Farley died 12 years ago but he's back to life in this new ad for DirecTV. The television spot shows images of Farley performing one of his comedy bits from the movie "Tommy Boy" as comedian David Spade tosses out wisecracks from a couch.

Chris Farley died 12 years ago but he's back to life in a new ad for DirecTV.

The television spot shows images of Farley performing one of his comedy bits from the movie "Tommy Boy" as comedian David Spade tosses out wisecracks from a couch.

Viewers have been quick to weigh in, with many calling it tasteless and others insisting it's a tribute.

The line between honoring a dead celebrity and exploiting one can be blurry, as the son of television pitchman Billy Mays is beginning to find out. Mays died in June and his son quickly launched a Web site in his father's memory.

VIDEO: Chris Farleys appearance in a DIRECTV commercial has stirred up controversy.Play

As part of his stated mission to honor his father, Billy Mays III is sponsoring a Hallow-clean Contest and encouraging fans to dress up as a dead Billy Mays for Halloween. Cyber reaction has not been kind, at a time when Billy Mays still appears on TV commercials.

And then there's Joe Jackson, who used the release of the documentary "This Is It," a movie featuring his dead son Michael Jackson, to hold a VIP party at the Palms hotel in Las Vegas. Jackson reportedly charged $3,000 to get in.

While many people find the business of cashing in on a celebrity after death a little creepy, the families apparent don't.

"We should look to Chris' family and friends for the ultimate opinion on this subject," according to a statement released by DirecTV spokesman Jon Gieselman. "They were involved from the beginning of this project and felt that the spot was a great tribute to Chris."

In a statement to ABCNews.com, Spade said, "When DIRECT TV came to me and the Farley family with this idea about 'Tommy Boy,' we talked and thought it would be a cool way to remind people just how funny Chris was. It is a clever homage to my friend and a movie that we loved doing."

The idea of relatives profiting from a dead celebrity's legacy began in the late 1970s, said Roger Richman, a California-based attorney whose agency managed the estates of hundreds of deceased personalities.

"Prior to 1979, it was considered wide-open territory ... anybody could use the image of a dead celebrity any way they wanted without any payment to the family," Richman said.

Remember Fred Astaire With a Dirt Devil

And the result was that a valuable public image could be tarnished by a stranger looking to make a quick buck, he said.

But that all changed when Bela Lugosi's son sued Universal Studios for using his father's likeness to market Dracula products. Lugosi Jr. argued that Universal Studios' right to use his father's image expired when he died.

In 1979, after a protracted legal battle, the California Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the Lugosi family but the decision contained an important caveat: that celebrities' images could be passed down to their heirs as a common-law trademark if they used them for commercial purposes during their lifetimes.

Had Bela Lugosi sold his name to market fake blood, for instance, while he was alive, his family would have had the right to control -- and profit from -- his image after his death.

Since then, Richman said, there has been increasing acceptance of using the image of a dead person in products and advertising; think Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum, or Elton John crooning to an audience of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong for Diet Coke, or John Wayne shilling for Coors.

"You have to control the legacies of these legends ... you have to control it in order to prevent other people from abusing it," Richman said.

Still, using a dead celebrity to sell a product isn't without risk.

Steven Levitt, president of New York research firm Marketing Evaluations Inc., which tracks the likability of dead celebrities, said that Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Johnny Carson regularly top the most likeable list.

But not everyone is so marketable, Levitt said. "It depends on what the person died with, how much baggage, and how long they have been dead."

Michael Jackson is a case in point. Jackson's consumer appeal waned while he was alive because his controversial lifestyle took a toll on his image.

"But people tend to forgive and forget once the person is deceased," Levitt said. "We are almost certain Michael Jackson's likability ratings will get a whole lot better than they ever were when he was alive."

Meaning Jackson, like Farley, could turn into quite a pitchman, now that he's dead.