A fictional, yellow celebrity perhaps best summed up the weird lot of the famous dead person. “You celebrities need to realise that the public owns you for life,” Homer Simpson said. “And after you’re dead, you’ll all be in commercials dancing with vacuum cleaners.”
Simpson was referring to Fred Astaire (d.1987) whose controversial, computer-assisted number with a Dirt Devil in 1997 was authorised by his widow but led his daughter to say she was “ saddened that after his wonderful career he was sold to the devil”.
Now Audrey Hepburn has become the latest face to be disinterred for promotional purposes, returning to the screen 20 years after her death to advertise a chocolate bar.
A minute-long spot for Galaxy, revealed during ITV1’s Mr Selfridge, places a young Hepburn on a bus in traffic on the Amalfi Coast in the 1950s. A Galaxy bar tempts her from her handbag. She makes eyes with a hot man in an open-top, swiftly swapping vehicles before tucking in as they speed away.
This time, Hepburn’s sons, who control her estate, authorised the use of her image, for which they will have received a fee. Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti say their mother would be “proud” of her new role, adding in a press release that she “often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit”.
But, as the words of the younger Astaire show, the image rights and posthumous fortunes of the departed can lay legal and ethical minefields for brands, and raise the morbid question: who owns dead people?
Last year, a Los Angeles judge ruled it was legal for General Motors to use the image of Albert Einstein’s face planted on top of the rippling torso of a model bearing an e=mc² tattoo. The scientist’s estate had sued but lost because, the judge said, the right of expression trumped an estate’s right to control an image more than 50 years after a death.
British law affords no such rights at any time. Rules vary in the US but are perhaps tightest in California, home of Hollywood’s great graveyard. Trade there in the images of the dead is hugely lucrative. CMG Worldwide represents many estates, including Marilyn Monroe’s. She reportedly earned £4m in one year of Mercedes Benz ads.
Forbes, meanwhile, keeps a dead-star rich list: Elizabeth Taylor was chief among 13 names last year who had earned a combined £350m during the previous 12 months.
Beyond the law, public taste can influence the use of and reaction to dead celebs in ads, particularly now technology makes it possible effectively to colour in ghosts. Nike faced criticism for trying to rescue the Tiger Woods affair(s) by using the voice of his late father in an ad in 2010. Critics called it “creepy”, a feeling more nobly exploited in 2007 when Bob Monkhouse promoted prostate cancer awareness beside his own grave three years after the disease had killed him.
If there is a risk that such revivals creep out an audience, or harm a celebrity’s image by association with cleaning equipment or the confectionary aisle, for a brand there is at least the reasonable certainty your star will not do something to harm yours.