CLAIROL'S OFF-COLOR CAMPAIGN PRODUCED LOTS OF GREEN

By Published on .

When the copy chief at Foote, Cone & Belding assigned copywriter Shirley Polykoff to work on a tiny hair-color division of Bristol-Myers known as Clairol, he told her, "You're the only one around here who can write that kind of schmaltz."

The task required far more than schmaltz. In the mid-1950s, only 7% of American women colored their hair, and those who did were considered somewhat tawdry. Polykoff's mission was to create respectability for hair-coloring while persuading women to give Clairol a try.

"I guess my whole life wrote that campaign," Polykoff said of the slogan, but she pinpointed one specific incident as the catalyst. In 1933, her future husband, George Halperin, took her home to meet his mother. Anxious to find out if his mother liked her, Polykoff grilled him on the way home. "My sisters thought you were great," Halperin said.

"That's nice, but what did she say?" Polykoff asked.

"She says you paint your hair," replied Halperin. "Well, do you?"

Polykoff did, in fact, lighten the back of her hair so it would match the front. Her future mother-in-law's comment became a running joke for Polykoff and Halperin, who were married three weeks later.

"Things stay in your subconscious mind, and I believe that everything you have back there is usable, if you just have sense enough to use it," Polykoff wrote. More than 20 years after Halperin's mother made her accusation, Polykoff was musing over how to bring Clairol into the mainstream while she was at a cocktail party with her husband. Then a beautiful redhead entered the room.

"Does she . . . or doesn't she?" Halperin whispered, and Polykoff knew she had her campaign.

Some colleagues said the slogan was too suggestive, and Life at first turned down a 10-page Clairol campaign because of the double entendre. Polykoff challenged Life executives to survey women in the office about the campaign, and not one admitted that they found any smutty connotation.

Of course, Polykoff knew that in the 1950s women were not likely to admit that they perceived an off-color meaning in anything.

Within six years of the campaign's inception, Clairol sales shot up 413%, and

In this article:
Most Popular