Marilyn Monroe, photographed on 3 December 1961, when she was 35. Photo: Archive/AFP/Getty
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From Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn: why dead women make the ideal brand ambassadors

The trend for using long-dead actresses to front campaigns aimed at female consumers is at best tasteless and at worst insidious.

Despite having been dead for 52 years, Marilyn Monroe has landed a job that many contemporary actresses would kill for: she has been hired as the new “face” of Max Factor. “We are thrilled to announce that glamour icon Marilyn Monroe is our new Global Ambassador!” the cosmetics company announced on social media to a decidedly mixed response.

Given the nature of an ambassadorial role, one might assume Monroe to be an impractical choice but, thanks to technology, death is no longer an obstacle when it comes to advertising. If anything, it’s an asset. In Forbes’ annual list of top-earning deceased celebrities Monroe ranked number 6, bringing in $17m last year for Authentic Brands Group, who own the rights to her image.

Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 Dior campaign

Nor is this Monroe’s first posthumous appearance for a beauty brand. She was resurrected in 2011, along with Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich, to star in a Dior perfume advert. Similarly, Audrey Hepburn, who died 22 years ago this month, could recently be seen scoffing chocolate in an advert for Galaxy, (somewhat incongruously, given her famously svelte figure).

Audrey Hepburn advertising Galaxy chocolate

However, this trend for using long-dead actresses to front campaigns aimed at female consumers is at best tasteless and at worst insidious.

If still alive today Monroe, Hepburn and Kelly would all have been in their 80s. Dietrich would have been 113. But the images seared into public consciousness – and proliferated by advertisers – are of these women at their aesthetic peak. The same, youthful photographs are continuously recycled on social media (sometimes emblazoned with a wrongly-attributed inspirational quotation), in print and online, effectively reducing Marilyn et al to the status of cartoon characters.

While Monroe was 36 when she died, meaning there are no photographs of her as an older woman, Kelly and Hepburn were 52 and 63 respectively when they passed away. You wouldn’t know it from a cursory image search online though – the results are mostly photographs of both women in their 20s and 30s. In fact, the first image of Hepburn looking visibly older comes via a Reddit post titled “’Cause people seem to only post the 20-something Audrey Hepburn”. One commenter replied: “I honestly assumed she died in her twenties because I’ve never seen a picture of her any older.”

Audrey Hepburn photographed in Amsterdam on 24 April 1990, when she was 60. Photo: Archive/AFP/Getty Images

This confusion is beneficial to brands whose customers have grown increasingly savvy to digital manipulation. Adverts with contemporary actresses and models have lost their impact because we know (or, at least, suspect) that the women they display have been cut, plucked and starved into perfection even before the retoucher has taken to them with his Adobe toolkit.

Conversely, we have a habit of romanticising golden age Hollywood as a more honest time, when women were voluptuous and technology was not advanced enough to airbrush pictures. In truth, little has changed. Monroe had a chin implant and nose job; whispers of anorexia have long been attached to Hepburn (let’s put it this way, she certainly wasn’t binging on Galaxy chocolate bars). And the National Portrait Gallery’s excellent 2011 exhibition, Glamour of the Gods, revealed that airbrushing was rife. One print of Irene Dunne featured scribbles on her forehead where she had been marked for retouching. Another series of images showed Joan Crawford: in one picture she has freckles and forehead lines, in another they’re gone.


Moreover, while retouching a contemporary actress or model is futile when a paparazzo is around every corner ready to give the lie to their billboard, there is no chance of Hepburn or Monroe being papped at their local newsagents looking saggy or, even worse, doing something inappropriate or illegal that could reflect negatively on the brands they are representing.

Dead women are ideal brand ambassadors: compliant, submissive and easily manipulated, both figuratively and digitally. Thus it is unsurprising that Max Factor’s slogan for their new campaign (“From Norma Jean to Marilyn Monroe – created by Max Factor”) not only takes full credit for Monroe’s make-over but eliminates any agency Marilyn might have had in her own transformation. Luckily, she isn’t alive to argue otherwise.

Sometimes, of course, the women are themselves complicit in the ruse, sacrificing their contemporary selves in order to preserve the idealised image we have of them. In her 80s Dietrich, by then a recluse, agreed to participate in Maximilian Schell’s documentary about her but refused to be filmed, instead agreeing only to audio interviews so that she would only be remembered as she was at the peak of her career. Similarly Bettie Page, also in her 80s, was happy to license her pin-up image to lingerie and adverts but refused to be photographed at signings. "I want to be remembered," she told the LA Times, "as I was when I was young and in my golden times.”

While some companies have headed in the opposite direction – last year L’Oreal hired Helen Mirren, 69, as their global ambassador and this week 80-year-old Joan Didion was revealed as the face of Celine’s latest campaign – there are surely countless other beauty brands waiting for former screen sirens such as Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot to kick the bucket so they can begin exploiting images of them in their prime, without any worry that they might be snapped in the present day to remind unsuspecting consumers that the only real cure for aging is death.

Photo: Getty
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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers