For such an artful ballplayer, Lou Gehrig was a clumsy pitchman. During an appearance on Robert Ripley's Believe It Or Not radio program in the late 1930s, Gehrig, who had a $1,000 contract to endorse Huskies cereal, was asked how he began each day. "With a big bowl of Wheaties!" Gehrig replied, touting Huskies' chief breakfast table rival.
If Gehrig's skills as an endorser are still lacking, it's no longer his fault. This week the French telecommunications firm Alcatel will begin airing a 30-second television spot featuring a digitally altered version of Gehrig's famed farewell address at Yankee Stadium. As it did in its current, highly controversial ad in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech to an empty National Mall in Washington, D.C., Alcatel has manipulated the Gehrig footage to show the Iron Horse proclaiming himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" in front of a deserted stadium.
Not surprisingly, critics are irate about the commercial appropriation of one of sport's touchstone moments. "Gehrig is a hero who stood for something much greater than selling modems," says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the progressive watchdog group Commercial Alert. " Alcatel is cheapening this moment by turning it into a commercial property that's no different from the Taco Bell chihuahua."
Alcatel and its ad agency, Arnold Worldwide, maintain that both the Gehrig and the King spots are intended to "extol these individuals, honor their memories and protect their integrity," says Arnold senior vice president Jim McGinn. As for the Gehrig estate, which had to approve the use of the footage, executor George Pollack says the six-figure rights fee Alcatel paid will be applied to various charities, including research on Lou Gehrig's disease.
One advantage to using historical figures in commercials, of course, is that dead legends, unlike their living counterparts, are immune to new scandal. Critics, however, would argue that exploiting these revered figures to sell products, with no sense of whether those personalities would or would not have consented to it, is a scandal in itself. "I find it ludicrous to connect Gehrig's speech with a telecommunications outfit," says Gehrig biographer Ray Robinson. "This is baseball's Gettysburg Address. It ought to be sacrosanct."