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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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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