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Audrey Hepburn Resurrected for a New TV Commercial—Is This a Good Thing?

Ron is a fan of the television shows of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, he enjoys them more than just about anything that's been on TV since!

Have you seen Audrey Hepburn’s newest TV commercial? She stars in a 2013 ad for British chocolate maker Galaxy. The ad is beautifully shot, and Audrey is just as beautiful—despite the fact that she had been dead for 20 years when the commercial was made.

It’s a magnificent technical achievement—but I find myself very uncomfortable with the whole thing.

Creating a Digital Audrey

The image of Audrey Hepburn that appears in the Galaxy ad is, of course, not really her. It is the product of the meticulous application of the very latest advancements in computer-generated imagery (CGI). The ad makers pulled out all the stops to get Hepburn’s on-screen image just right.

They started by searching for an actress who was as nearly Hepburn’s double as they could find, one who would "share as many of her features and characteristics as possible." They had a computer scan the actress’s face to record exact muscle movements, and to get a faithful reproduction of the texture of her skin. The plan was to digitally reconstruct Hepburn’s face around her double’s eyes. But the production team soon realized it just wouldn’t work. Hepburn’s eyes and her smile were “her most instantly recognizable features,” and though the double looked remarkably like Hepburn, she wasn’t Hepburn, and it showed.

So the producers decided to go totally with CGI—they would recreate Audrey Hepburn entirely within the computer. They poured through her entire catalog of feature films, as well as news coverage, to build a three-dimensional model of the star. Then a team of four animation experts was put to work just on recreating Hepburn’s enchanting smile. Many scenes required frame-by-frame hand animation. Finally, they added a soundtrack consisting of Audrey herself singing “Moon River” from “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” It was a massive and impressive technical effort.

And to a greater degree than ever before, it succeeded. Take a look, and see what you think.

What do you think?

A Masterful Achievement—But Is It Right?

I think that from a technical perspective, the ad is extremely well done. But there are two issues that make me feel very uneasy about it.

First, although the image of Audrey in the commercial is miles beyond any computer-generated image I've seen before, it’s still not Audrey Hepburn. The Hepburn in this ad is an “it,” not a “she.” The sense I get is of watching a technically perfect android play the role of Audrey Hepburn. There is, for me, something unnerving in watching this image that is almost a perfect replica of Hepburn, but which very evidently has no soul.

The Zombie Factor

Part of what makes the movie experience so great is when we allow ourselves to be drawn into the life of a character. I don’t want to overstate this, but the idea of being drawn into the “life” of this digital phantom makes me feel as if I’m close to entering forbidden territory. On a deep emotional level, I don’t want to go there. It’s as if I’m being tempted by something extremely seductive, but just the slightest bit unclean.

That feeling is, of course, entirely subjective. And I recognize that it may be caused not so much by what is actually on the screen as by my knowledge that the “person” who performed that role was not alive.

Audrey Hepburn in "Charade"

Audrey Hepburn in "Charade"

Who Should Control a Departed Star’s Image?

But there is another reason for my unease that is objective enough to at least merit discussion. I’ll pose the issue this way: is it right that when a person dies, they lose all right to maintain the integrity of the persona they had in life?

Audrey Hepburn's sons, who control her estate, authorized this use of their mother’s image, and were, of course, handsomely paid for doing so. They say that their mother often spoke of her love for chocolate, and would be “proud” to appear in this commercial. But, would she?

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I don’t remember ever seeing Audrey Hepburn appear in any ads for commercial products during her lifetime. She did, as I recall, make public-service type ads as part of her work with UNICEF, helping disadvantaged children, but never, as far as I know, for a product. If this is something she would not willingly do while she lived, is it right for her children to essentially redefine who she was by having her do it after her death?

What if a child who had a “Mommie Dearest” type relationship with a now-deceased parent decided to star that parent in a pornographic picture? To my mind, we need to be very careful about this. It’s one thing to inherit someone’s estate. It’s quite another to be given absolute control over the persona that person will present to the world from now on.

Is This Fair to Stars Who Have Died?

Audrey Hepburn is far from the only celebrity to have their image remade by the commercials they appeared in after death. She follows in the footsteps of luminaries such as John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and even Albert Einstein.

The British newspaper The Independent notes that in a 2012 court decision, a judge in Los Angeles ruled that General Motors had a legal right to attach the face of Albert Einstein to the body of a model bearing an e=mc² tattoo, even though Einstein’s estate objected. The judge said that since it had been more than 50 years since Einstein’s death, the right to free expression overrode his estate’s right to control his image.

Is This Really What We Want?

Is this really what we want? Is it fair? Is it right?

Ten years after Fred Astaire died in 1987, he was resurrected to dance with a vacuum cleaner in a Dirt Devil commercial. Astaire’s young widow had authorized the ad. But his daughter, Ava McKenzie, who had no control over his estate, was very distressed by what was being done to her father’s image. She expressed her dismay in an irate letter to the manufacturer.

"Your paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented, " she said. She added that she was "saddened that after his wonderful career, he was sold to the devil."

Is that what has happened to Audrey Hepburn?

© 2013 Ronald E Franklin


Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 15, 2015:

Chris, I think you've hit on something that will be a growing cause of concern as imaging technology grows more and more sophisticated. What are the limits of what someone can do with a manufactured image that is recognizable (at least arguably so) as another person? Can I create and post online an image that looks like you and have it do obscene things you would never do yourself? Do you have veto power over the use of an image that someone might reasonably say looks like you? How close does the resemblance have to be? In a world approaching 9 billion people, probably any lifelike image could be said to look like some real person. Interesting can of worms.

Chris Telden from Pacific Northwest, U.S.A. on April 15, 2015:

I hear what you're saying. My take is that with the storm of digital technology, we are all now recreating the meaning and boundaries of identity just as we did after the Industrial Revolution. Since that time, we've become alienated from our traditional anchors: our family, our name, our beliefs, even our body - everything that defines our sense of self has reformed into something that centers around the "individual." In other words, in the last century or so, we've been busily forming ourselves into solid, individual "Me's." Given that, it feels very natural to assume we should try to "keep" total control of our public identity, especially now when that identity is being wrestled about as it takes new shapes (e.g., avatars and online forums) and the formerly clear lines of intellectual property are getting fuzzy.

Yet until recently, an individual wasn't by any means free of social anchors, either. Our "essential right" to self-define apart from our family is a pretty new idea. To be frank, even though I was born with a consciousness of this right, I'm not sure how morally, ethnically, or even ecologically right or wrong it is yet.

So, I guess what I'm saying is...I, too, feel uncomfortable with the appropriation of someone's image. But I think it's something I've got to get used to, because the more immersed we get in digital living, the more we're going to be manipulating digital files to create alternate realities, and the degree to which I can create a reality for myself is going to be changing for a while. We're exploring the possibilities for freedoms and protections all over again. It's kinda exciting, really. 'Least, I think so. :)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 09, 2015:

Thanks, stuff4kids. I admire the technology, but I don't think I'll ever be really comfortable with the result.

Amanda Littlejohn on March 02, 2015:

I share your unease regarding this advertisement. I very much doubt that Audrey would have willingly taken part in commercials and I am saddened by her sons' exploitative use of her image.

I also find the 'digital resurrection' more than just a little creepy. As you say, the CGI has no soul. And if there was one thing that shone out of Audrey Hepburn like a beacon in the darkness, it was her soul.

Bless you :)

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 02, 2015:

Hi, Breanne. I still find myself of two minds about this. I must admit to enjoying the ads themselves. But at the same time, it seems unfair for these stars to be put in positions they would never have put themselves in while they were alive. Technology marches on! Thanks for reading and sharing.

Breanne Ginsburg on February 02, 2015:

You make some interesting points here. On one hand, it seems that commercials like these are a great tribute to actors and actresses who have passed away. On the other hand, they have passed away and as you mentioned, technology can't make up for a real human being. It's sad that these excellent actors and actresses have passed away and in a way, the commercials almost make it like they are easily replaceable, which they are not.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 04, 2014:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Pepe. I'm sure a lot of her fans agree with you.

Pepe on August 03, 2014:

I see absolutely nothing wrong with the Galaxy ad at all, it's tastefully done and amusing.

Having seen many of the films she played in as they were released, including her last cameo in Always, I consider myself one of her faithful fans.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 29, 2014:

Thanks for reading, Rebeccasutton. I was interested to see this ad on TV a few weeks ago. I wonder how many viewers had the impression you did, that the image they saw was really Audrey Hepburn. I still haven't lost my unease with it.

Rebecca Sutton from Rock Hill, SC on July 28, 2014:

I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt odd about this commercial. I am fascinated by the technology and thought it was really her...(not her NOW, but a clip of her put into current day). It was almost like watching a train wreck lol. I think what matters is what the families think and feel. That should come first.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 16, 2013:

Thanks for commenting, someonewhoknows.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on September 16, 2013:

C G I - can also represent - Clinton Global Initiative - Bill Clinton's Global Charity which is supposedly to help poor peoples of the world.

I understand he and George Herbert Walker Bush started it.I believe Clinton's daughter is now involved in it. Haven't heard much about it lately though.It,could be a scam to take in money for political purposes.

As for using technology for the purpose of representing the 3D image of anyone.Especially anyone famous who people literally "Worship" is akin to, the admonition in the New Testament - to not worship the image of the beast.The beast being a human or other worldly figurehead digital or otherwise that people willingly worship for whatever reason.

Maybe even a "Clone".

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 15, 2013:

Thanks, Heidi. I think you've got it exactly right. We should not make people endorse in death what they never would have chosen to endorse while living.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 15, 2013:

I don't mind if advertising is done in the style of legends of the past, but reanimating them is definitely out in my opinion. This implies endorsement.

Can't anyone think of anything original?

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 15, 2013:

Thanks, Kathleen. I think it's probably going to up to us as viewers to "vote with our feet" as to whether more ads like this are produced.

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on March 15, 2013:

Excellent subject. This is another example of our laws not keeping up with the technology revolution. Good for Miss Hepburn's son's for leading a fight that will protect the dignity of our most revered public figures.

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