A little bit of slap and fickle

The model is a woman who looks like a geisha girl with bags of marble where her arms should be
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IT'S A tale of slap and fickle - and its bound to end in tears. Madonna is rumoured to be the new face of Max Factor. Yes, that company for middle-of-the-road women in the middle of their lives with middles that have gone missing, are to have as their aspirational slap model a woman who, at a recent awards ceremony, looked like a geisha girl with bags of marble where her arms should be.

It's an irony of the make-up game that while millions of women have a lifelong loyalty to certain products (my aunt, aged 83, is struggling now that a foundation called Veloute, which she has used for 65 years, is virtually extinct), the cosmetic companies are notoriously fickle in their choice of a Face to push their paint. The models come and go, some at great cost. Yardley recently went bust having spent pounds 32m literally tying Linda Evangelista up in knots for a bondage advertising campaign. (Whip away those wrinkles?)

The reasons fashion commentators have given so far for Max Factor's choice of Madonna are varied and contradictory, but what they all help to illustrate is the advertising industry's hopeless, not to mention hysterical, misunderstanding of how to appeal to that eight-million -strong female army, aged between 35 to 55, known inelegantly as the baby-boomer generation.

It was all so easy in the Fifties. Then, there were two ways of persuading women to part with their perfumed pound. The first was to treat womanhood as a series of dangerous ailments - halitosis, unwanted hair, and most dreaded of all, underarm BO. "Are you really lovely to love?" asked a 1953 ad for creamy, smooth Fresh antiperspirant. Now, of course, we know there's a touch more to amour than a stick of deodorant. The second much- loved pitch was to promise a man: "She's Lovely! She's Engaged! She uses Pond's Cold Cream!"

Women today treat hygiene problems as one of life's minor hurdles rather than as a genocidal threat to the weaker sex. The older generation are too cynical to expect Mr Right to emerge, like a genie, from a bottle of foundation. Instead, they expect minor miracles. It's not a famous face that has the pulling power but the promise that a product can hold back time; erase lines; cancel out crow's feet. Only mad women believe it, of course, but it signals that you're making a bit of an effort.

"Bit of an effort" is the crucial phrase. Madonna is shorthand for wholesale obsession. And that, I suspect, few baby boomers find attractive in a woman who's supposed to be an aspirational role model. She and Cher personify the caught-in-aspic "youth" that requires hours of exercise, self-denial and no booze. Basically, for most baby boomers, life's too full and fraught for that.

One commentator has suggested that Madonna's attraction to Max Factor is her "ability to constantly reinvent herself". But that's no magnet for the older woman, either. They've been there and done that. They've mutated through Sixties false eyelashes and Seventies glamrock to, in the middle of their lives, anything which makes them feel at ease. Of course, they're willing to make amendments to the basic plan - but nothing radical. That's not timidity - it's faith in the tried and tested. So, in the magazine makeover of a woman's face and wardrobe, it's sometimes hard to see the change. And often, the "before" is better.

Isabella Rossellini was sacked as the Lancome woman because she was deemed too old. Yet her appeal was precisely right. She looked comfortable with her age, maturing gracefully, in control and nobody's fool. Now we have Madonna, billed by the pushers of pan-stick as "strong" and "confident" but, to some, conveying the opposite impression. Behind the money-making exhibitionism, she appears a sad, confused chameleon. A person yet to sort out what she wants in life - and time is moving on.

Kathy Phillips of Vogue suggests, in a different twist, that the choice of Madonna may lie with the glamour of her Hollywood connections. A return to Max Factor's original roots, since, in the past, it too hired stars like Rita Hayworth.

In May 1951, in an American magazine called Silver Screen, Rita gave her "Tips for Teenagers". Newly married to a prince - "Wouldn't you like one, too?" - she described how she had had her hairline lifted, a widow's peak created, her hair dyed red, and she'd learnt to do as she was told. The magazine commented admiringly: "...few women have more willingly submitted to becoming the passive material out of which a myth can be created... to please men."

Madonna may not be passive, but she's certainty a myth. Better to look at - than look like. If Max Factor is serious about bringing the profitable blush back to our cheeks, then like others in the world of advertising, it needs to learn who the older woman truly is. Then dump who they think she ought to be.