Observe the 1950s. New objects like TV sets were designed to look like furniture so they would be "at home" in your living room. Meanwhile, accepted objects like automobiles were growing massive tailfins to make them seem bigger and better, new and improved. Although hair coloring is now very common (among Americans ages 13 to 70, about half of all women and one in eight males now color their hair), that was certainly not the case a generation ago. The only women who regularly dyed their hair were actresses and "fast women," especially prostitutes. This was the cultural context into which Lawrence M. Gelb, a chemical broker and enthusiastic entrepreneur, presented his product to Foote, Cone & Belding. Gelb had purchased the rights to a French hair coloring process called Clairol. The process was unique in that, unlike other available hair coloring products which coated the hair, Clairol actually penetrated the hair shaft, producing softer, more natural tones.
FCB passed the assignment to Shirley Polykoff, a genial first-generation American in her late 20s, because her colleagues thought she understood schmaltz. Polykoff, who died earlier this year, was a true creative all-star, and one of the few women to achieve such status. She understood emotion all right, but she also knew that you can be outrageous if you do it in the right context. You can be very naughty if you are first perceived as being nice. Or, in her words, "Think it out square, say it with flair."
And it is just this creative reconciliation of opposites that informs the ad. The headline is naughty, the picture is nice. Exactly what "Does She . . . or Doesn't She" do? To men the answer was clearly sexual, but to women it certainly was not. The male editors of Life balked at running this headline until they did a survey and found out women were not filling in the ellipses the way men were.
Women were finding different meaning because they were actually looking at the model and her child. The picture is not pre-sexual but post-sexual, not inviting male attention but expressing satisfaction with the result. Miss Clairol is a mother, not a love interest. But wait! If that is so, then the product must be misnamed; it should be Mrs. Clairol. Remember, this was the mid-'50s when illegitimacy was a powerful taboo. The naughty/nice conundrum was further intensified and diffused by some of the ads featuring a wedding ring on the model's left hand. Although FCB experimented with models purporting to be secretaries, schoolteachers and the like, the motif of mother and child remained constant.
Polykoff had to be ambiguous for another reason. Clairol did not want to be obvious about what it was doing to its primary customer -- the hairdressing salons. After all, they were trying to cut them out and sell to the end-user. So the ad again has it both ways. Miss Polykoff and Miss Clairol made hair coloring possible and acceptable and they made at-home hair coloring -- dare I say it -- empowering. The Clairol theme, which ran right into the '70s, boosted sales by 413 percent in six years, and influenced nearly 50 percent of all adult women to tint their tresses.
But by taking control of how the new woman presented herself, Misses Polykoff and Clairol did indeed make it possible for women to 'come a long way, baby.' In a current ad for Miss Clairol's descendent, Nice 'n Easy, the pixieish Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows us how the unique and dangerous has become common and tame. She interrupts a wedding, telling the bride: 'Even if your marriage doesn't last, your hair color will."