Today, the idea of a woman (or anyone) dying their hair is hardly worth a second look. Far from maintaining a ‘natural’ look, hair dye has exploded into a colouring box of colours used by kids to seniors, and any gender.

So, you ask, what does today’s hair colors have to do with culture and advertising?

The answer? Shirley Polykoff. She used advertising in ways that changed cultural norms.

How and why she did this is something we can all learn from.

Who’s Shirley Polykoff?

Back in those golden days of advertising of the mid-20th century, Ms Polykoff (1908-1998) became one of the most powerful women in advertising:

  • she learnt the trade from the bottom up
  • ran her own successful advertising company from 1973-1984
  • helped define the second wave of feminism
  • helped President Carter promote the new Equal Rights Amendment by building an advertising campaign for the ERA
  • received multiple awards including Advertising Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Award for her pioneering work in communications
  • after retiring, she lectured in advertising and business at Princeton and other universities
  • lifetime love of the arts

Polykoff saw advertising as a tool not just for promoting product, but as a model of what life could be like in America.

For new immigrants (like her parents) the model was needed. A new life in America was the opportunity to reinvent oneself, one’s family, one’s place in life.

How do you translate these dreams into a real life? You look for guides. Advertising was one guide.

Today, we might be little cynical about the ‘American dream’ but it was a powerful and motivating force during these years.

Advertising tells a story…

To Polykoff advertising provided a story – at that time it was the American dream. Advertising needed to ‘speak’ to the consumer, understand their needs and dreams. And, offer the solution.

Before we can fully recognize Polykoff’s impact on what we do today in copywriting, advertising and marketing, we need to understand her perspective within her lifetime.

Her lifetime spanned the 20th century. For just a minute, imagine the influences upon her throughout her life:

  • the Great Depression and economic downturns
  • at least two major wars
  • anti-Semitism and born to immigrant parents in 1908
  • two waves of feminism with other cultural changes

The backstory – the bones of her success

From Polykoff’s perspective, advertising could help people see themselves differently, showed them dreams, showed them hope, and signs of success.

But how did it all start? Her parents, Jewish immigrants, had wanted her to be a boy. And because of this, they set an expectation for their daughter the same as they would have for a son.

Polykoff was raised to learn how to earn money. In Jewish culture, the word is fardiner. And fardiner translates into being a ‘money-earner’ and typically a male role within a family.

Young Polykoff rose to this challenge with enthusiasm. Dressing as a boy she, along with thousands, headed out to find work. Her first job at age 11 (1919) was selling women’s’ coats.

In 1920, Campbell Soup held an advertisement competition. They wanted a new ad. Twelve-year-old Polykoff entered, but didn’t win. However, the letter from Campbell Soup seems to have sparked an idea in her. The idea that people made a living writing ads.

And so, a seed took root.

“Rhinestones, a girl’s next best friend”- the start of sassy sales slogans

Polykoff kept writing. In 1929, she was writing successful ad copy for a Brooklyn store.

Some of her keys lines including “Rhinestones, a girl’s next best friend” meant early success. Her income went $19/week to almost $80/week. Pretty good for a young, female copywriter during the Depression!

She continued. She became a popular copywriter for other leading department stores in New Jersey.

Fast forward just a bit. Polykoff marries in 1933, has two daughters over the next few years, and always keeps working. Not the average woman for her times.

Then, in 1955, when she was about 45 years old, Polykoff joined Foote, Cone & Belding, a New York advertising firm.

They had a new account, Clairol.

This became the turning point for Polykoff’s future.

Clairol – the game changer that almost didn’t happen

Her spontaneous, and provocative, slogan for Clairol opened the door for everyday women to think about changing more than just their hair colour. After all, if the American dream shouted the right to freedom, to have a fresh beginning or reinvent oneself – why weren’t more women living the American dream?

At the time only 7% of women coloured their hair. Hair dye had an immoral tinge to it. Only ‘cheap’ women or actresses dyed their hair. ‘Good’ women did not. If women were dying their hair – it was a deep deep secret and done at home.

Clairol wanted something new, fresh, something magical to increase sales. Yet, success almost didn’t happen.

The team meetings for the Clairol campaign were struggling. Polykoff, who was taking notes during a meeting starting scribbling out her ideas.

Her copy chief thought hair dye was something the only woman in the room should write about.

Polykoff spoke up with “Does she … or doesn’t she?”

Most of the men in the meeting found this offensive, suggestive, too risky.

Richard Gelb, Clairol’s president, loved the slogan and took it.

It wasn’t easy. During the process Life magazine turned down Clairol advertisements until Polykoff suggested the women working at the magazine be asked if they thought it was an offensive slogan.

None did. ‘Life’ conceded. Ads were run.

What happened? In six short years Clairol’s profits climbed by 413%. Hair colour became part of most women’s lives (and still is today).

The ‘risky’ slogan ran for 15 years.

These five words launched Polykoff into the advertising stratosphere and halls of fame. She became one the most successful women in advertising.

Does this seem trivial in 2019?

Possibly. We’re talking about a beauty product. However, beauty products sell and are multi-million advertising accounts. Today, we still have luxury beauty, organic beauty, natural beauty…all designed to help people feel better about themselves.

Whether you accept the cultural value of this, beauty, fashion are influences on cultural norms.

While Polykoff loved a sassy provocative slogan, she also wanted women to understand they had choices. They could do things. It was time to break taboos. It was time for a woman to live the life she wanted.

Even though she doesn’t appear to be a feminist on today’s terms, she was an outlier ahead of her time. In her career she was carving out a path in a very competitive world that no other woman had succeeded in doing.

Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer – Polykoff

Her influence was great. She recognized that people are always seeking ‘something’ and her job was to have a conversation with consumers through her copy.

What do we learn from Polykoff?

Polykoff would spend Saturdays at art galleries and museums because it fed her creativity. She travelled to learn. She had a dream of a better future. She had fun.

She had the discipline to work as a writer, and wear a few other hats when she ran her own agency. She learnt the industry.

Most of all, she knew her consumer.

But, the biggest lesson to remember is to learn what’s needed. Understand what’s wanted. Know what the product can provide. How does it fulfill a dream?

Then, simply speak to your consumer’s heart.