The visage of a beautiful starlet is a common sales tool for advertisements. But a chocolate ad launched in the U.K. this week opted instead for a Funny Face.
That is, of course, the face of classic movie star Audrey Hepburn – and at the same time, not her face – featured in a new commercial for Mars Inc.-owned Galaxy Chocolate. In the spot by AMV BBDO London, Ms. Hepburn has been digitally resurrected, her face rebuilt with CGI and superimposed on a modern-day actress. The actor is seen in a broken down bus on the Amalfi coast; when she spots a handsome stranger (a ringer for Ms. Hepburn's Roman Holiday co-star Gregory Peck) she joins him in his car instead, taking a bite of the chocolate as they drive through the countryside.
The ad – approved by her sons, Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Luca Dotti – could be seen as a sweet tribute, or a creepy sort of digital grave robbing. But it is not the first time Ms. Hepburn's likeness has been used commercially. The Gap famously remixed a clip from Funny Face in an ad for skinny pants. It is one more in a line of brands from Dior to Dirt Devil that have used dead stars to sell product.
But the wholesale reconstruction of her image is relatively new. Most ads in the past have simply spliced video clips from dead stars' movies or interviews into the spots. And the technology continues to develop at a faster pace than ever: Last year at the Coachella music festival in California, a reconstructed hologram of Tupac Shakur took to the stage to perform and even interact with fellow rapper Snoop Dogg.
The technology has led industry watchers to predict we will see more of these endorsements from beyond the grave.
But why not use a live star? It's not simply that a payment to an estate can sometimes be cheaper, or that a digital effect is more reliable than a human star. It is also the instant recognition of a celebrity whose brand has already been solidified.
"It's timeless. You have an instant recognition of what that personality means, from a 30,000-foot level," said Mark Owens, senior vice-president of Corbis Entertainment. Corbis owns GreenLight Rights, a service that works as a middle man between celebrity estates and those (including advertisers) who seek licence to use a person's likeness.
GreenLight has facilitated deals including an image of Andy Warhol representing "inspiration" in a Hong Kong print ad for a Citibank credit card; and Albert Einstein conveying that "great minds choose Baxter" medical equipment. When agency BBDO New York wanted to show that laminate flooring could look just like hardwood, it created a print ad with a Bruce Lee lookalike, stating that " it only looks like the real thing."
Another perk is that unlike stars such as Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Martha Stewart, a deceased star is a known commodity. The endorsement will never be tarnished by an unforeseen scandal.
These deals can be legally complex, since the laws governing rights to the image of a deceased person vary state by state in the U.S., and country by country globally. GreenLight currently spends a great deal of time negotiating in Asian-Pacific nations where protection of intellectual property rights is a greater issue.
Mr. Owens believes it's possible for this kind of ad to be creepy.
"I would never recommend any of our estate holders to approve something where somebody who's not with us any more holding a product, or consuming something. You have to do it in the right way," he said. "We're always careful … We definitely feel there's merit for tasteful interaction."