The advertising industry is fond of making up "best" lists, but Cover Girl almost never appears on them. Yet the campaign is one of the most impressive overnight success stories in American commercial history: this upstart makeup line, born of a small, family-owned pharmaceutical company with no cosmetics experience, was introduced in 1960 and quickly became the best-seller among the huge Baby Boomer generation, a preference that lasted through end of the century. Along the way, this spanking new cosmetics line challenged the dominance of well-established competitors, especially Revlon (known in this era as the "General Motors of cosmetics"),1 and upset normal practice in both magazine and television advertising. Cover Girl also radically changed the way cosmetics were sold, moving the industry from an overly precious service purveyed in department stores to the self-service, packet-on-a-peg grocery item they are now. Furthermore, the personnel behind the work were predominantly female, a rarity on the "best" lists. And the campaign helped to elevate fashion modeling, not at all a glamorous job in 1960, to the celebrated stature it holds today.2
In this article, I tell the story of the origins of the campaign and the thinking that led to its positioning, and sketch the flow of influences and strategies through which the brand evolved from its introduction in 1960 to a key consumer shift in 1990. I will be drawing on an important advertising history resource, the Modern Advertising History Collection at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. This collection covers several brands, of which Cover Girl is one. The Cover Girl archive, like those for other brands in the same collection (Marlboro, Alka Seltzer, Pepsi, Nike, Federal Express, and Campbell Soup), includes examples of ads as well as audio interviews with key players and is supplemented by letters, reports, charts, and other documentation of the brand's life.
Original Cover Girl
The Noxzema Chemical Company, headquartered in Baltimore, had only one product prior to the introduction of Cover Girl makeup. A waxy-textured, camphor-scented cream, also known as Noxzema, had wide distribution in the mid-twentieth century and was used as a staple cure for sunburn. Because of its specialty use, however, the cream was bought infrequently, which limited sales. A young woman at SSC&B advertising agency, Mary Ayres, suggested to the company that they reposition the cream as a beauty product, to be used for washing the face.
Ayres is an important figure in the history of women in advertising. She was one of the first to work on the business side rather than in the creative department, and she was also one of the first women to be made vice-president of a major agency. Successful women in advertising have traditionally come up through the ranks via one of three paths. Some, especially copywriters, were hired out of college (e.g., the famous women's groups at J. Walter Thompson). Another common pathway was to work up from writing retail advertising, as had Shirley Polykoff and Bernice Fitz-Gibbon. The third path, especially for managers, was to start as a secretary, as did Mary Ayres.3
Ayres was hired in the late 1930s by advertising executive Ray Sullivan. Mary proved to be amiable, was a hard worker, and stayed closely interested in Sullivan's work. So, when Sullivan started his own advertising agency, he asked her to go with him. Mary went along, as did Sullivan's best client, the Noxzema Chemical Company. It was 1944.
At the new agency, Sullivan, Stauffer, Colwell & Bayles (SSC&B), Mary continued to follow the Noxzema account closely. In fact, the male account executives hired to manage Noxzema advertising came to rely heavily on her knowledge of the business. One day, as the legend goes, Ray Sullivan got tired of putting a question about Noxzema to the account executives only to be told to "ask Mary." He announced that if he had to ask Mary everything, she should be the account executive. He fired the male A.E. on the spot and hired Mary in his place.