Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It is the archetypal brand problem. The loyal customers of an established brand are getting on in years, and a once-thriving identity is threatened with extinction along with its market. This dilemma, pointed for any brand, is particularly thorny when said brand came to prominence as a symbol of youthful rebellion.

Such is the problem facing the Elvis Presley industry, whose fan base now qualifies for Medicare and whose pilgrimage point, Graceland, comes more and more to resemble Lourdes with every passing year. How to re-create that youth-culture magic for a new generation? As a recording executive at Elvis’ label, RCA Records/BMG, wondered out loud to The New York Times, “How do we make him hip, young and irreverent—into a brand that’s relevant to this younger demographic?”

In truth, the real Elvis was hip, young and irreverent for a very short time in the course of his long pre- and post-deceased career. That brief moment was captured some years after his death in a wonderful documentary called Elvis ’56, focusing on the year when the original avatar of sex and rock ‘n’ roll (the drugs came later) was at his transgressive height.

But let’s face it, that was 46 years ago. Then came the Army, Holly wood, gospel records, Vegas, jumpsuits, photo ops with Richard Nixon and 25 years of graveside vigils. All stuff beloved by the die-hard fans who have made Elvis’ cult highly profitable over the decades. But cool? Never. From the early ’60s until his drug overdose in 1977, Elvis was a tool on which hip young people could hone their irony.

The good news for the folks at Elvis Presley Enterprises, as they gin up the marketing machine for the 25th anniversary of his death this August, is that the real Elvis doesn’t matter. The guy has been gone too long. Untethered to history, Elvis becomes a jumble of free-floating signifiers that can be appropriated and adapted as needed to fit whatever model of cool the young demo focus groups are yearning for.

And it ain’t the “hip, young and irreverent” Elvis ’56. It’s Elvis ’68, the pre-comeback Elvis of Live a Little, Love a Little. That’s the flick from which Dutch DJ Tom Holken berg lifted “A Little Less Con ver sation” and reworked it for Nike’s multimillion-dollar World Cup soccer spot. The remix is now headed for the top of the charts abroad.

At first glance, Elvis ’68 is an odd choice for the recoolification of the King. Consider what was going on then: Vietnam, street demonstrations, hippies, free love, psychedelics and a music scene transformed by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And then there was Elvis, in the third movie he churned out that year, playing a photographer who works for a conservative ad agency by day and for a girlie magazine by night. Rudy Vallee was one of his co-stars.

The movie did make a few concessions to the tenor of the times: Elvis wears turtlenecks, meets a zany, free-spirited gal who is walking barefoot on the beach, says “dammit” and, for the first time in his cinematic career, goes all the way. Still, it is surely Elvis at his schlockiest and most culturally irrelevant, the King at the nadir of his hipness.

But no longer. In the ever-evolving kingdom of cool, the last shall be first—if you wait around long enough. Indeed, so powerful is the reverse chic of Elvis ’68 that “A Little Less Conversation” was also used by Steven Soderbergh in his remake of Ocean’s Eleven. The song fit per fectly with the movie, which also took something that was culturally reactionary in its own time—Rat Pack masculinity—and tried to resurrect it as 21st-century cool.

Elvis ’68 is but one face of the once and future King. Many others will be gathered in a one-time “book azine” from Gruner & Jahr (a pub lication themed “Elvis, then and now”), due in August to coincide with a commemorative week at Grace land. We will also get Happy Meal Elvis, coming soon to a Mc Donald’s near you. This is the Elvis who is the guiding spirit of the Walt Disney animated film Lilo and Stitch, premiering this week.

Clearly when Elvis Presley Enterprises talks about making Elvis relevant to the young, they’re not kidding. In a much-publicized product placement, the little Hawaiian heroine Lilo is a devoted fan of the King, and the soundtrack includes “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis classics that will pour into the ears of Disney’s kiddie audience.

Thus, Elvis lives—if only as an offscreen cartoon character. Of course, some might say that’s where he’s been heading all along.