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Branson hijacks Widow to recast her as Virgin

Scottish Widows is furious that its well-known advertising symbol of a demure young woman in a black mourning cloak has been hijacked by Richard Branson to launch his own Virgin Life insurance service this Sunday.

The airline owner, balloonist and former condom retailer has even hired the same actress, Roger Moore's daughter, Debbie, to dress up in a similar black cloak. Appearing as the leading man in the series of promotional photos is Mr Branson himself. Scottish Widows, the Edinburgh-based insurer, replaced the actress last year, but there is little doubt as to Mr Branson's satirical intentions.

In one of Virgin Life's shots the actress pulls open her cloak to reveal a Virgin tee-shirt bearing the slogan "Get a Life".

Another features Mr Branson whispering in the widow's ear, the widow reacting with a look of outrage. A third has her mounting a Ferrari-red motor-bike displaying the Virgin logo, while the ubiquitous Branson reaches over her shoulder to grasp the handlebar.

Scottish Widows had problems weighing up an appropriate response yesterday. There is no copyright on young women dressed in black cloaks. Inside the company, reaction ranged from surprise and shock to downright displeasure.

Finally a terse statement was released, saying the Virgin campaign merely reflects Scottish Widows' brand strength and pointing out that Deborah Moore's contract ended 16 months ago, when she left to pursue an acting career.

Earlier in the day Scottish Widows' public relations department toyed with the idea of denouncing Virgin's spoof ads, an expression of pleasure that Mr Branson saw the value of the Widow's brand name, and an attempt to create a sound bite along the lines of, "You can't make a Virgin out of a Widow."

The Scots thought better of this more extreme reaction, since it would be likely to provide Mr Branson with even more publicity - something he craves above all else. Neutral observers were left marvelling once again at his ability to attract attention to wildly different Virgin brands and products.