Dan Murphy: Back From the Dead?

Jimmy Dean, singer and sausage king. ( Jimmydean.com )

I took an informal poll the other day of about a dozen friends and acquaintances, and to be clear: they weren’t all Millennials or Gen Xers. There were a number of aging Boomers included, as well.

My question was straightforward: “If I mention ‘Jimmy Dean,’ anything come to mind?’’

The answers ranged from “Huh?” to “What?” to “Who?” to a couple “Uh, you mean the maple-flavored sausage?”

The reason for the mini-survey was the resurrection, metaphorically speaking, of the late singer-songwriter-entertainer by ad agency Oglivy Mather in a series of TV spots for various Jimmy Dean brand breakfast entrées.

Creepy doesn’t begin to describe the experience of seeing a still photo — rendered in a garish red monochrome reminiscent of the footage in “Terminator II” when Skynet destroys the world in a nuclear holocaust — and hearing the voice of someone who died in 2010, as if he’s still sitting on his movie set porch pitching the down-home goodness of his eponymous sausage products, as he did 20 years ago.

A quick backgrounder: Jimmy Dean was a big-time celebrity, once upon a time. I had the pleasure of interviewing him several occasions, including an afternoon in the late 1990s spent at the Virginia homestead where he retired. I listened to Jimmy and his second wife, singer Donna Meade, sit side-by-side at his grand piano belting out classic country duets.

Dean recorded several hit songs that climbed the country charts (his biggest, “Big Bad John,” earned a Grammy in 1962), hosted televised variety shows (broadcast live!) on both ABC and CBS in the early 1960s, headlined a Las Vegas nightclub act for more than a decade and even appeared as a minor character, billionaire Willard Whyte, in the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever” (a campy, critically panned flick whose only legacy is the “giant LAY-zer” bit shamelessly appropriated by Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers franchise).

Problem is, Dean’s heyday was more than 40 years ago; hence, the lack of awareness about his identity and career accomplishments among the demographic segments (middle-aged adults) ostensibly targeted as potential purchasers of the breakfast items bearing his name.

His Q score, at least among the folks I surveyed, was zero.

A Lost Legacy
The original flight of Oglivy commercials for Jimmy Dean entrées, a line once marketed by Sara Lee Corp. (and now owned by Tyson Foods following its 2014 Hillshire Brands acquisition), featured some guy in a grade school-style “sunshine suit,” a costume as painfully awkward-looking as those cornball outfits portraying a bunch of grapes, an oversized leaf and someone dressed as an obese Santa in the lamentable Fruit of the Loom ads from a few years back.

So in that sense, the Dean resurrection, by comparison, is significantly more effective.

Even though he was a charismatic personality and a consummate storyteller, Sara Lee long ago eased Dean out of his role as the face of the brand that was the centerpiece of its purchase of the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1984, with former CEO John Bryan actively ushering the entertainer out of his pitchman’s role. In 2009, when Dean was inducted into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, the corporation’s PR people declined to send a representative, even though the induction ceremony was held at Chicago’s historic Union Club, literally right down the road from then-corporate headquarters on the city’s West Side.

And talk about memory lane: The still photo of Dean that leads off Oglivy’s 15-second spots looks suspiciously similar to the album cover of “Jimmy Dean’s Greatest Hits,” a 1998 re-release from Columbia Records that pictures the entertainer sporting his trademark ’60s-era Bandera High Sierra model cowboy hat.

The voiceover on the ads — which is clearly Jimmy himself — was obviously taken from earlier performances shilling for the various R-T-E breakfast products developed by Sara Lee in the 1990s, although the ads are presented as if they’re a contemporary creation.

Look, plenty of iconic CEOs have been leveraged by advertisers to provide a “face” for their corporate clients. Frank Perdue, Orville Redenbacher and Dave Thomas of Wendy’s come to mind.

But those other food marketers, including KFC (also an Ogilvy Mather client, by the way), either retired the spokesperson upon his demise or “recycled” him using actors portraying the deceased person — not by utilizing a beyond-the-grave audio clip from years earlier.

Given the near-total lack of recognition of the man himself, I’m not sure what Oglivy’s research told them about Dean’s ability to move the needle on product sales.

I know I’ll always remember him as a gracious, generous, garrulous entertainer who never forgot his dirt-poor roots in West Texas (where Wayland Baptist University in Plainview maintains the Jimmy Dean Museum) but someone whose legacy — despite the current commercials — seems to have slipped into the proverbial dustbin of cultural history.

He deserves better than being a disembodied voice, shilling for breakfast sausage.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

Submitted by Marcia on Tue, 08/21/2018 - 07:45

Very good article. Even though I enjoyed watching and listening to Jimmy Dean, I also find it creepy hearing his voice promoting Jimmy Dean Sausage in a current commercial since he died in 2010.

Submitted by L Wooster on Fri, 09/07/2018 - 09:11

It's not only you. I was seriously creeped out by a dead guy telling me how he greets the morning with a heapin' helpin' of sausage. And as you said, it's kind of pointless. No one under the age of 45 knows who he is, and those who do remember him just find it off-putting.

Submitted by Judie McDowell Cain on Tue, 09/18/2018 - 10:29

I had mentioned to several people about hearing the words "I wish I could tell you"..... and thinking "No, because you're dead". And then the next part about "warming up a body"????? " No, because you're dead" !!! I had wondered if anyone else felt that these ads were CREEPY!! Thank you for the confirmation.

Submitted by gary sloan on Mon, 10/22/2018 - 20:16

i think it's in extremely poor taste to use the late performer's voice and likeness in the ad spots in use today. i am highly offended by such a lack of respect to the dead. i will no longer by any of the jimmy dean products.

Submitted by Marvin on Sat, 11/10/2018 - 14:00

I think it’s sickening, using the voice of a dead man who was a great person, as if he is alive.

Submitted by Kate on Wed, 11/14/2018 - 04:25

I was only 7 when Big Bad John became a hit. My baby brothers name was John and the chorus of that song was sung to him daily! I only remember watching his TV show a few times.
My Mom bought Jimmy Deans sausage when she bought any sausage.
The commercials for Jimmys products using his voice seemed haunting to me the first time I heard it on Hallmark channel very late one night.
Personally, I feel like Jimmy put his time in and that he deserves to Rest In Peace. I think the commercial spots are in really bad taste...not the sausage.
Does Jimmys widow or his family or charities get any royalties from these commercials?
I think they need to be pulled off the air. Like I said, the man deserves to Rest In Peace. Goodnight Jimmy, and thank you.

Submitted by Marcia on Sun, 11/18/2018 - 20:20

I was a little surprised to hear Jimmy Dean's voice, but very pleased. It's nice to hear a normal pitch instead of someone being stupid.

Submitted by Tina on Wed, 11/21/2018 - 11:00

I cannot believe they use Jimmy's voice......it is in such bad taste....I remember when John Wayne was advertising an OTC for pain and when he died the commercials were removed from TV. I wish they would remove Jimmy's commercials ...it is in such bad taste.

Submitted by Beverly Randolph on Thu, 11/22/2018 - 10:57

Am I the only person who thinks bringing Jimmy Dean's voice back is charming and nostalgic? I like the commercials. I hated it when the company threw him over because he was too old. It was his frigging creation, for heaven's sake. I, for one, vote for a little nostalgia. And it's in FAR better taste than that fake colonel. Talk about CREEPY.

Submitted by David Mathews on Sun, 11/25/2018 - 16:26

I seem to remember the company screwing Jimmy Dean out of his spokesman gig and now they are digging up a dead man to give a folksy slant to a meat product far removed from any type of good ole farm setting as you can get.

Submitted by Bill Fleming on Thu, 11/29/2018 - 13:18

I was a huge Jimmy Dean fan back in the day. His mellow, down home voice is unmistakable to those who have heard it before. I was quite taken aback when I first heard the latest TV ad. First I was very impressed by anyone who could imitate him, then was determined that this was, in fact, Jimmy's voice. Either way, relative youngsters would be totally clueless as to the impact that he had on my generation (I was born in 1949). I have come to be somewhat disturbed now when I hear the ad. Does not make me want to drop everything I'm doing and rush out and buy a pound or two of sausage. I live very near the Purnell "Old Folks" sausage plant in Simpsonville, Ky. so I tend to lean toward that brand when shopping.

Submitted by Mike on Tue, 12/04/2018 - 17:13

I'm one of those aging boomers you talked about, and I remember Jimmy Dean very well. I watched his weekly tv show every week. I remember when he went into the sausage business, and the early commercials. I think it's a damn shame that almost a decade after his death, he is now known as a sausage spokesman, not as a well loved singer. Folks need to go to youtube and listen to some of his songs, more than just Big John.

Submitted by SHARYN on Fri, 12/07/2018 - 17:23

when I first heard the ads on TV I thought it quite creepy. I knew Dean had been dead for quite a few years. I must admit, sometimes when I hear the commercials it brings me back to a softer time.

Submitted by Kevin Morrison on Sun, 12/09/2018 - 17:43

Sets the bar high for bad taste.

Submitted by Lee on Mon, 12/10/2018 - 06:59

When he says I wish I could tell you blah blah blah... Yeah you can't cause you're dead.. it is the creepiest thing I've ever heard.. makes me want to vomit. Who would do this? It's not right.

Submitted by Terri on Tue, 12/11/2018 - 21:31

I find hearing Jimmys voice very comforting, takes me back to when he actually did the commercials, the new commercials are in good taste unlike the KFC commercials, the Colonel must be turning in his grave.

Submitted by Sandra Hayek on Tue, 12/18/2018 - 01:49

I think it's a little creepy cuz it sounds like he's talking to you FROM the grave or through some portal in time with that "old scratchy recording" sound.

Submitted by Sean on Fri, 12/21/2018 - 00:34

Actually I remembered Jimmy Dean pretty well, but not for his country music career. I remember him for his appearance in "Diamonds are Forever" (hardly universally panned, loved by many including some of the most prominent critics at the time of its release even Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Roger Ebert, your memory is faulty, obviously you didn't like it, but in reality most of the critics and movie goers of the day actually loved it) and for his commercials. When I heard the commercials, I thought "wasn't he dead" and then said to myself I guess maybe not. But actually the commercials (which I doubt will be run for a long period) have been very effective. When was the last time anyone noticed that Jimmy Dean sausage was even still out there except for I suppose a few sausage addicts. Using his voice has gotten the product to be noticed and that is what you want to do with a commercial regardless if it may seem a little morbid in this case.

Submitted by Kathleen Tomlinson on Sat, 12/22/2018 - 18:26

These commercials are in very poor taste and I will no longer buy any of their products!

Submitted by Craig Hylemon on Tue, 02/05/2019 - 03:43

I remember watchin Jimmy on the show Daniel Boone and i remember him bein the spokesperson for his sausage, i think its great they are usin his original clips for their commercials its a nice change of pace to have a wholesome sales pitch instead of the moronic sales pitches of today.