Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Shirley Polykoff, the Patron Saint of Blonde Marketing

Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure...

Is it true...blondes have more fun?

If I've only one life...let me live it as a blonde!

Do these phrases sound familiar? They should: these ads were penned back in the '50s by a trail-blazing female copywriter named Shirley Polykoff, and changed the American hair care industry forever. Let me put it this way: before Shirley Polykoff penned that first slogan, just 7% of American women dyed their hair, most of whom were actresses and models. When Shirley's stewardship of the Clairol account ended in the 1970s, that number had skyrocketed to 40%, and included women of all walks of life.

Shirley Polykoff's words were so effective, they even inspired me to pursue a book length project on the topic, 50 years later. But who was Shirley Polykoff? I scoured the Internet to find out, and in the process learned: she was a delightful paradox.

She was born in Brooklyn in 1908 into a poor, Ukrainian Jewish family. She went on to became one of the most successful, well-compensated advertising professionals of the 20th century, despite the obstacles presented by industry bias against her gender and her religion.

She was a natural brunette, but always dyed her hair blonde, even when she was still just a teenager, "even in the days when the only women who went blond were chorus girls and hookers."

Shirley's attitude was decidedly unfeminist: "Miss Polykoff was cut from a pre-feminist mold, never forgetting, as she often put it, that she was 'a girl first and an advertising woman second,' (NYT Obituary, 1998.) Polykoff went by a different name at home, as Polly Halperin, always kept the two lives separate, and put her family first before her career. She even insisted that her employers cap her salary at a measly $25,000/year, as she believed it inappropriate for a woman to make more money than her husband (her advertising firm, Foote, Cone & Belding, doubled her salary twice within a few years of her husband's death.) But Shirley's actions spoke louder than her words, and Ms. Polykoff was incredibly ambitious: she lied about her age so as to obtain a job in advertising while still in her early teens, worked her way up in the ad world and held a copy-writing job (as opposed to a secretarial or administrative position) in the '30s when the Depression found many American men out of work, and already had an established advertising career by the '50s, while most of her peers were at home managing the cult of domesticity.

Now, I truly believe that advertising and marketing in this day & age have a terribly deteriorating and damaging impact upon women's self esteem. More specifically, upon my self-esteem. I struggle every day with notions that I am not skinny enough, blonde enough, made-up well enough, dressed well-enough, and on and on. And I am not alone: as Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, "Recent research consistently shows that inside the majority of the West's controlled, attractive, successful working women there is a secret 'underlife' poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control." Wolf argues that we may be worse off than our un-liberated grandmothers, that the beauty myths that bind us now may be more stringent than our great grandmother's corsets.

And then there's Shirley Polykoff, a woman who, according to her daughter Alix Nelson Frick, believed "you could acquire all the accouterments of the established affluent class, which included a certain breeding and a certain kind of look. Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde." And thanks to her brilliant copy-writing, that's exactly what I've done.

What do you think, readers? Is it a delightful paradox? Or a vicious cycle? Are we liberated by the ads? Or oppressed by them?

Some days I feel like I just can't decide...

1 comment:

RCB said...

Oh Miss Kitty, it's quite a dangerous line. It's one thing to feel empowered to be whoever you are inclined to be...whether it is becoming a blond or becoming a steel worker. It is another thing when advertisements bombard us with the ideas that we MUST be something in order to be beautiful. The most frightening to me was when ad copy essentially told us we needed to be heroin skinny in order to be beautiful. So not my idea of beautiful and not what I wanted my teenage niece to be seeing. Essentially, I'm sad any time I feel like I can't decide what makes me happy. Just to let the rest of you know...I LOVE my jet black hair and I think my curves are deliciously voluptuous. I also love my svelte and beautifully undercover blond friend! We are strong, powerful, women who are individuals. That is what makes us beautiful.