TV’s Royal Couple Lives On Thanks to Brand Endorsements

Lucy and Desi are still with us in ads

If there is one thing more impressive than the popularity of I Love Lucy—which ran for 179 episodes between 1951 and 1957—it is the popularity that endures long after the show ended. Actually, the inimitable sitcom never really did end. CBS threw the series into reruns starting in 1958, and the show wound up airing in 77 countries and 22 languages. (It still runs today, on the Hallmark channel.) Just in case you might have missed it, the show riffed off the fairy-tale marriage of real-life stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who not only created one of the most enduring situation comedies in television history but also have done a fine job themselves of enduring. Sixty-one years after the Hollywood glamour couple appeared in this 1952 ad for Philip Morris, Ball and Arnaz appeared in a 2013 ad for Wells Fargo—no mean feat considering they have been dead for 24 and 26 years, respectively.

Of course, in Hollywood, nobody ever dies—especially when brand marketers have the checkbook out. Marilyn Monroe recently popped up on the label for Three Olives’ strawberry vodka, while Elvis is shilling for Radio Ipanema. And then, there’s Lucy and Desi. While the couple is by no means near the top spot in the $2 billion world of dead-celebrity endorsers, they do occupy a unique position: a timeless kiss of Americana that works magic for most any brand—be it cigarettes or banking.

“These two, in particular, were such a factor in our families. They were in our homes every Monday night,” said Lisa Soboslai, senior director of GreenLight Rights, which manages the likenesses of many notable Americans no longer with us, including Johnny Cash and Thomas Edison. Soboslai, whose business is to match famous faces with brands, explains why Lucy and Desi are among the most abiding. “They’re a couple people associate with trust,” she said. “They’re part of the family, my next-door neighbors, and if they tell me something’s OK, then it must be. That’s why they work with such different product endorsements.”

Soboslai has a point—even though, according to most accounts, trust wasn’t a cornerstone of the real-life marriage of Lucy and Desi. Of course, in the ’50s, nobody talked about Arnaz’s boozing and whoring, and Ball—savvy enough to recognize her husband’s business brilliance—kept up the façade. Back then, the money for I Love Lucy came from the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris tobacco, which explains why the couple pitched the brand. Ultimately, Arnaz’s deal with CBS to keep the show’s old spools for this idea he called a “rerun” would generate the real millions.

Today, the couple lives on in sepia-toned eternity, looking no worse for the wear as they put their smiling imprimatur on the not-so-exciting world of financial services for Wells Fargo. But to the right audience, Soboslai said, the fit is just fine. “It works because of the target demographic—folks saving for retirement,” she pointed out. Boomers looking at this ad today likely remember tuning in to Ball and Arnaz on the small screen back in the ’50s—back when everything, even smoking, was funny when Lucy did it.