The Way Shirley Polykoff Did Hair Coloring and Advertising

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Shirley Polykoff,
How She Did Hair Coloring and Advertising

In the mid-1950s only actresses, models and other fast women dyed their hair; which means that only 7% of women in America went to hair salons to change the color of their hair.[1] Clairol, a small division of Bristol-Myers, was the first company to release a hair-dyeing product for women to use at home. This product had to find a way to change the way people thought about hair coloring. A junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding named Shirley Polykoff introduced hair dye to women’s homes and made it normal for them to use this product. Her advertising campaign transformed hair coloring into a respectable action; women were now able to decide which hair color they wanted to have in an affordable way. Not only did she give power to women in the American culture, but also empowered women in the advertisement world. This copywriter was a role model in a field that, at that time, wasn’t open to either Jews or women. In 1955, Polykoff started working at Foote, Cone & Belding as a junior copywriter. She said in her autobiography, “the F.C.&B. copy chief came by, tossed some papers on my desk, and said, ‘Guess what, Polykoff, we just got the Clairol company. It’s yours, honey, on account [sic] you’re the only one around here who can write that kind of schmaltz.’”[2] While her boss thought it was not going to be an influential campaign, Polykoff knew this product and the campaign that it required would be revolutionary. In the ‘50s, there was a stigma to coloring your hair, therefore in 1956 Polykoff came up with a tagline that was “the perfect mix of discretion, independence and intrigue: “Does she…or doesn’t she?””[3] This tagline became a part of popular culture and increased Clairol’s sales, turning the hair dye market from a $25 million a year to a $200 million a year business within a decade. Shirley Polykoff knew that in order to open a market for this product, she first had to focus on discretion – to make it acceptable to use this product without fear of being judged by others. Polykoff understood the importance of discretion from her own experience. Before becoming one of the most famous copywriters, she was an ordinary lady who met a man named George Halperin. This lawyer was the son of an Orthodox rabbi from Pennsylvania. George introduced Shirley to his family at the Jewish tradition of Passover. Polykoff made a good impression on Rabbi Halperin but she wasn’t very sure about what George’s mother thought of her. Mrs. Halperin was an Old World Orthodox Jew who had very high expectations for her son. Polykoff remembered asking her boyfriend if his mother had liked her when they were on their way back: He was evasive. “My sister Mildred thought you were great.” “That’s nice, George,” she said. “But what did your mother say?” There was a pause. “She says you paint your hair.” Another pause. “Well, do you?”[4]

Polykoff felt humiliated and could imagine George’s mother saying “Fahrbt zi der huer? Pder fahrbt zi nisht?”[5] Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she? Shirley Polykoff felt humiliated for doing something that only chorus girls and hookers did. However, she believed that the way she looked on the outside did not match the way she felt on the inside, which is why she had started dyeing her hair at age 15. Polykoff was born on January 18, 1908, in Brooklyn from immigrant Russian parents who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1905 to avoid conscription.[6] Her mother always insisted that Shirley and her two sisters learn about the American culture through education. Polykoff said she learned more of the American culture, especially things like how to dress, how a home should look or how to set the table through magazine advertisements.[7] “As a child growing up in Brooklyn, she dreamed of crossing the bridge to Manhattan, and her values were shaped by the advertisements in the glossy...
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