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.