Semi-literate Clairol print ad shows no loving care for brand

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So you're flipping through People, and you come across an ad spread, filled with type and one major graphic element: a woman's hand raised as if to take an oath. The product is Clairol's Loving Care hair color.

The art direction isn't much, but the thing does kind of jump out at you. If Clairol is unlucky, and you read it, you are then treated to one of the most bizarrely confused and perversely self-destructive acts in advertising history.

You are witness to Clairol, in the name of some supposed revelation, essentially renouncing 40 years of brand equity.

"Doesn't anyone tell the truth anymore?" the copy from Lois & Lois, New York, asks. "Clairol does: Every woman doesn't want to change her hair color. All women don't think blondes have more fun, don't want to be a redhead, or even have people wonder, `Does she or doesn't she?' A lot of women just want to cover up gray hair!"

Huh? Ordinarily, we'd dismiss the butchered syntax as typically sloppy copywriting. But this time it gives us a window into the ad's greater incoherence. "Every woman doesn't want to change. All women don't think blondes have more fun."

They mean, "Not every woman wants to change . . . Not all women think blondes . . . " The way it's worded, they are saying inadvertently that Clairol has no potential customers. So, in the first instance, whoever penned this mess ought to be sent back to third grade for a refresher.

But the closer you look, the worse it gets; the real crime is far worse than semi-literacy. The substance of this ad, under the pretext of somehow setting the record straight, invites the wrath of the tens of millions of customers who have been attracted to Clairol precisely because of those unforgettable, treasured slogans. To suddenly dismiss them as puffery is to spit on the consumer, not to mention the unforgivable disrespect for four decades of Clairol's own venerable advertising heritage.

There can, of course, be legitimate reasons for a company to engage in a sort of advertising de-Stalinization, but only under very rare circumstances. First of all, the advertising must have been essentially dishonest or destructive in the first place, such as with cigarettes. Lorillard, for instance, is on the air telling potential smokers that "Tobacco is whacko."

In no way, however, can "Is it true blondes have more fun?" be construed as dishonest. Say what you will about its inherent superficiality, the notion tapped into a rich vein of consumer interest. It may have fed vanity and insecurity, but it found deep-seated human truth. As for "Does she or doesn't she?" the sexual revolution double entendre captured the '60s zeitgeist as few ads ever have. To dismiss it as untruthful is itself untrue.

The second criterion is that the new communication actually repair the old. For example, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" failed not because it was an illegitimate positioning to renounce the brand's historical values, but because nothing at Oldsmobile had very much changed. The cars were still sofas on wheels.

Clairol's disconnect is even worse. The ostensible revealed truth--so fresh and devastating it was deemed permissible to disavow its heritage--is that, "A lot of women just want to cover up gray hair!"

Yeah, so? This is worthy of Orwellian revisionism? The fact is, that has always been the positioning for Loving Care.

"Hate that gray? Wash it away." The slogan is at least 35 years old.

In other words, this ad, which presumes to be confessional and provocatively truthful, is itself misleading. And stupid. And potentially very damaging, both to Clairol and to advertising itself.

The folks at L'Oreal will read it and think they've dyed and gone to heaven, because their archrival is foolishly covering up the wrong roots.

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