For the past month, I have seen a dead man pitching products on TV. No, I am not having a Sixth Sense moment. Everyone can see the dead man, not just me.
The dead man is, of course, the famous American pitchman Billy Mays. He is the guy that has sold Americans all sorts of products, such as Oxiclean and Orange Glo. He died recently of heart problems, but his advertisements are still being aired.
Shortly after hearing about his death, I saw one of these ads. Oddly enough, rather than inspiring me to go into a consumer frenzy, the ad gave me a creepy feeling. After all, I knew the man trying to sell me some cell phone attachment was quite dead.
Interestingly, seeing movies that have dead actors in them has never given me that feeling. For example, if I watch an old Bogart film I do not get that creepy feeling. I don’t even get it when the actor died in the course of filming, such as what happened to Brandon Lee during the filming of the Crow.
Obviously, my particular psychological responses are hardly the stuff of philosophical interest. However, I think that the difference in how I feel does point to something that is worthy of philosophical consideration.
In the case of the commercials, while Mays might be playing his pitch man role, it is him selling the product. That is, he is there as himself, an enthusiastic and cheerful fellow who would really like you to buy all the stuff he is pitching.
In the case of the movies, the dead actor was playing a role of a meaningfully different order and this seems to create sort of a psychological buffer. To be a bit more specific, the character the dead actor played has a virtual life of its own (and perhaps even virtual death) and continues to exist as a fictional being.
In contrast, it is just Billy Mays, the dead man, whose recorded image is still pitching products. There is no buffer, no fictional being. Just someone I know is dead. Hence, the creepy feeling.
From a moral standpoint, there seems to be nothing really wrong with the ads remaining on television. After all, he no doubt contracted for a certain run and the fact that he is now dead would not seem to change that contract. Of course, there might seem something vaguely wrong about keeping a man working after his death. Certainly, it is just his recorded image, a digital ghost, that is doing the pitching. But perhaps even digital ghosts deserve to be laid to rest.