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  • Does she... Or doesn’t she?The making of Miss Clairol hair coloring
  • Shirley Polykoff

The following is a chapter from Shirley Polykoff’s autobiography of the same title, published by Doubleday in 1975. Polykoff was responsible for the titular Clairol hair dye advertisements from 1956, which propelled the product into mainstream usage. The campaign, however, is only one of this advertising executive’s many successes. For an overview of the ups and downs of her career, hunt down a copy of the delightful account of her career.

I guess my whole life wrote that campaign.

There are advertising campaigns that seem terribly smart, bright, slick, humorous, written to impress the copywriting colleague down the hall, or even to show off one’s own wit to oneself, but I have always believed that ads that communicate, ads that really create a compelling person-to-person bond, are ads that reflect the writer’s total life experience. I know that sounds a little big, even pompous, but if an ad writer is willing to expose her honest reactions not only to the product but, more importantly, to the significance of the product in terms of the emotional needs it fulfills (as well as its practical utility), she will be able to distill those aspects of the product that are its genuine selling points.

Since I like to think of this as a book on advertising, let’s examine the premise that my whole life wrote it, that everything that has contributed to me as a person also has contributed to the campaigns I create.

Being an awkward seven-year-old middle child between two beautiful brunette sisters was a fundamental factor in this first Clairol campaign. The older one, Lillian, was lovely enough to have been photographed nude on a white fur rug. The youngest, Ellenore, was so pretty people were always stopping the carriage to admire her. As far as I knew, nobody ever photographed me nude on a white fur rug or stopped the carriage to admire me. But I had blonde hair like my mother’s, though most of her friends assured me I’d never be as pretty.

So the way I felt at fifteen, when my hair began to darken and I began periodic visits to Mr. Nicholas—beauty parlor one flight up—wrote that campaign too. Little gray-haired Mr. Nicholas and I maintained a pleasant fiction. He didn’t bleach my hair. He just lightened the back a little to match the front. And the back kept getting closer to the front. But nobody seemed the wiser, and whatever compliments I got continued to be about my “naturally” blonde hair, which was just like my mother’s, to whom a beauty parlor was the room you fixed up and used only for company.

Or maybe it was something that happened to me in 1933. I had just met George. I had known him three weeks when he invited me to Passover dinner in Reading, Pee-ay. In 1933, if you lived in New York and a fellow invited you to come meet his family in Reading, Peeay, it was tantamount to a proposal of marriage. I had been dragging along with two other fellows for about five years, neither of whom had ever asked me to come home and meet the family. So I was very excited about the idea and I accepted.

George’s father was an Orthodox rabbi. He was tall and handsome with a beard which seemed to get smaller through the years as he grew to feel more American. And he liked to tell jokes. He and I hit it off right away. George’s mother, on the other hand, was a rather silent, old-fashioned lady who wore a severe, pulled-back, tight haircomb, one step away from the sheitel, a wig worn by Orthodox women to cover the shaven head since hair was an unseemly adornment for a respectable Orthodox matron. It was quite obvious that she adored her son. It was also quite obvious that the whole family adored him. He was the second child and the oldest boy, the first to break away from the family...


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