Death of an Icon

Pope StatueA story from the L.A. Times / Washington Post syndicate, evidently sent to press before the Pope’s death, told of the increase in sales of John Paul II-related merchandise. This includes perfectly reasonable and understandable things such as the Pope’s own book, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way (forgive me, but it reminds me of a different book by a very different man) and rather silly things like the pineapple in red lemongrass soup the Pope had sampled in a San Francisco restaurant.

It will be interesting to see how this unsurprising phenomenon plays out in terms of the late Pope’s status, according to this article from two years ago, as “the world’s most desirable product endorser.” The piece, from the Christian Sojourner magazine, notes the following:

Given the stature and aura that still surround the church and papacy for many people, it remains jarring to see examples like these:

  • To finance the pope’s 1998 visit to Mexico City, the Archdiocese of Mexico City received corporate sponsorship from more than two dozen firms. The single largest sponsor was the Pepsi-owned Sabritas chip company, which paid $1.8 million for the right to use the pope’s image in its packaging.  The Spanish-language play on words –“Las Papas del Papa” (–The Potatoes of the Pope”) was lost on absolutely no one. Equally obvious was the seemingly inescapable TV and billboard ads connecting the pope’s picture with Bimbo bread, a local cement company, and other joint promotions between the church and its corporate benefactors….
  • In 1999, the Vatican approved a licensing deal with Miami-based Siesta Telecom to issue a Pope John Paul II pre-paid phone card. The card comes with a signed certificate and the pope’s likeness on the card; the company already sells phone cards with the Virgin Mary’s picture on them.

Pope MedalThere may be issues of taste, I suppose, but in fact, non-profit organizations, including religious ones (and relatively wealthy ones), will raise funds almost any legal way they can. Think Bingo. Ideally money raised by a church in a poor country such as Mexico will be put to good use, so utilizing his ability to raise funds merely by being photographed may well have struck the Pope as a perfectly good way to leverage his own dignity for a better end.

How will that value be affected by the Pope’s demise? In the short run, at least it will probably increase — holding equal the question of the effect of his death on the nature of his legal right of publicity. It is not such an easy matter to assume that, however. It’s one thing to fight over those rights in the case of an entertainer who leaves heirs. Even considering that the estate of a deceased famous person has, in many jurisdictions, certain exclusive rights to the exploitation of his personality (and other intellectual property), what is the earthly “estate” of a lifelong celibate and who are his legal heirs?

When Karol Joseph Wojtyla became Pope 26 years ago, such a question would have seen as crass. It still is crass, except of course in a scholarly and sensitive treatment such as this one, but in a brand- and merchandizing-crazed world, it won’t be too crass for someone, somewhere, to litigate in the coming years.

UPDATE: The Pope’s last will and testament.

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Author:Ron Coleman

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