Polykoff, Shirley (1908-1998)

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Shirley Polykoff was born Jan. 18, 1908, in Brooklyn, the second of three daughters of Hyman and Rose Polykoff, Russian Jews who had immigrated to the U.S. Her mother, in particular, pushed her children to become Americanized through education and reading.

One of Ms. Polykoff's first full-time jobs was as a secretary at Harper's Bazaar, where her first attempt at copywriting got her fired. The magazine was scheduled to run an ad in Cosmopolitan. But when Cosmopolitan called right before a holiday weekend saying it had to have the ad copy immediately, almost everyone except Ms. Polykoff had already left the office. So she wrote the copy touting an upcoming issue but misspelled the names of several famous writers scheduled to appear in the issue. Instead of the expected pat on the back and possibly a raise, Ms. Polykoff was fired.

Ms. Polykoff landed her next job writing copy for a women's fashion and specialty store in Brooklyn, where she wrote advertising with headlines such as, "Rhinestones, a girl's next best friend." Among the department stores she worked for early in her career were J. Bamberger & Co. and Kresge Co.

Retail experience helped her land her first job at an ad agency, Peck Advertising Agency, New York, in the early 1930s, where she wrote copy for I.J. Fox Inc., a retail furrier, and B.T. Babbit Inc.'s Bab-O cleanser. Like most women at that time, she quit her job when she got married, on May 10, 1933; unlike her peers, however, she was soon back at work at the insistence of her husband, lawyer George P. Halperin.

In 1943, Ms. Polykoff took a job as a copywriter for Frederick-Clinton Co. In 1955, she became a copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding, working on the Playtex account. Shortly after she started, the agency landed the Clairol account.

Ms. Polykoff, who had been using chemicals to keep her naturally blonde hair from becoming too dark since she was 15, was sensitive to the issues that kept most women from changing their hair color. At the time, only about 7% of women in the U.S. colored their hair, and those who did were mainly actresses, models and other women considered "fast." The campaign's well-remembered line, "Does she . . . or doesn't she," was inspired by Ms. Polykoff's first meeting with her future mother-in-law, who asked her son that question about Ms. Polykoff.

While the double entendre of the headline could be considered risque, the rest of the ad was not. Ms. Polykoff deliberately chose fresh-faced models to show that real women used the product. She added a child to the scene to emphasize that the product would reproduce the same shining, natural softness as the child's hair, along with the line, "Hair color so natural, only your hairdresser knows for sure." (She also added a wedding ring to the model's hand so the product, Miss Clairol, wouldn't appear to be promoting unwed motherhood.)

Life, however, turned down the ad because its all-male ad panel objected to what it saw as an off-color headline. Ms. Polykoff challenged the board to show the ad to the magazine's female employees, who all insisted the ad was about hair color. Clairol's 10 color pages were accepted, and within six years, hair coloring sales were up 413% overall and more than 50% of American women were coloring their hair.

Ms. Polykoff followed that campaign with "Is it true blondes have more fun?" and another campaign, targeted at women 35 and older, that declared, "If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde." In the early 1960s, Ms. Polykoff wrote, "Hate that gray? Wash it away!" for Clairol Loving Care, a nonpermanent coloring product designed to cover gray hair. The campaign ran with the tagline, "Makes your husband feel younger too, just to look at you!"

In 1964, Clairol introduced Nice 'N' Easy shampoo-in hair color with the line, "The closer he gets, the better you look." And in 1974, a jingle for Clairol Kindness Instant Hair Curlers sang out, "Curlers on your head, shame on you," which brought in sales of $25 million the first year and $70 million the second.

Along with her creative success came raises and promotions. By the time Ms. Polykoff left FCB, she was senior VP-creative director, chairman of the creative board and the first woman on the agency's board of directors. For a while she also was the highest-paid agency employee at FCB.

In February 1973, she retired from FCB and, with longtime coworker Raymond Betuel, launched Shirley Polykoff & Betuel in New York. The agency opened with the equivalent of $12 million in media billings, handling the Miss Clairol creative account as well as Kimberly-Clark Corp.'s New Freedom sanitary napkin, a new Maybelline cosmetics line from Schering-Plough Corp. and Houbigant fragrance products. After Mr. Betuel died in 1974, Ms. Polykoff changed the name of the shop to Shirley Polykoff Advertising, and her daughter, Alix Nelson Frick, joined the agency. In 1981, Ms. Polykoff left to become a consultant, effectively closing the agency.

In 1967, she was named Advertising Woman of the Year by the American Advertising Federation for her contribution to the beauty industry through her Clairol campaigns. In 1973, she was inducted into the Copy Club's Hall of Fame. And in 1980, she became the first living woman inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

Ms. Polykoff died June 4, 1998, at her home in New York at the age of 90.


Born in Brooklyn, Jan. 18, 1908; hired as copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding, 1955; wrote "Does she...or doesn't she" for Clairol Inc., 1956; retired from FCB and opened own agency, 1973; inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, 1980; resigned to become a consultant, 1981; died in New York, June 4, 1998.

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