#006: How Miss Clairol Created A Million Blondes

Miss Clairol Does She… Or Doesn't She Campaign 1956 Ad Header

For most of the 1900s, if you colored her hair, you were either an actress or… ahem, a lady who did horizontal cardio for money.

(Trying to avoid an SEO penalty here)

Dyeing your hair was something you would do in great secrecy and NEVER admit to. Because unless someone was asking for your autograph…

That was the case until 1956. An ad campaign made it socially acceptable to dye your hair and opened up the market. Before this ad, only 7% of women dyed their hair.

After this ad, 50% of women started doing it. By far, The hair-dye market grew to $200MM in a few years. This brand ate up half the market share and created more blondes (the most popular hair color product) than ever before.

It took hair coloring from something only expected of “women who practice the world’s oldest profession” to… well, anyone.

If your product has a negative social stigma, there is no better case study than what I’m going to cover right now.

Finding Miss Clairol

We don’t know much about Lawrence and Joan Gelb, the husband-and-wife founders of Clairol.

We DO know that Lawrence was a chemist. And in 1931, he traveled to Europe with his wife and two sons. Despite The Great Depression, Lawrence wanted to start a new business and went searching for great ideas.

In France, he found a hair-coloring product made by Muray of France. This product was very different from all the other treatments at the time. Clairol went INSIDE the hair shaft, giving hair more natural-looking color.

Joan insisted this was it. Lawrence bought the rights to the product. And off they went, back to America.

Back home, Lawrence worked with other chemists to improve Muray’s formula. A few years later, he was ready to launch Clairol.

Joan was the head of the company, called Clairol. She promoted “Instant Clairol Oil Shampoo Tint” in beauty salons around the country. Even in the middle of the Great Depression, women spent money on hair care and beauty salons.

By 1938, Clairols annual sales reached $1MM.

Fast forward to 1956. Clairol launched their flagship product “Miss Clairol.” This was a home hair coloring kit that let women color their hair in one step, by mixing the solution with peroxide. It only took 20 minutes and the cost was affordable.

Lawrence and Joan attended the 1956 International Beauty Show in New York City. Their goal? Show Miss Clairol to the world.

When the Clairol sales team demonstrated their new product, thousands of beauticians watched in surprise.

Bruce Gelb notes, “They were astonished. This was to the world of hair color what computers were to the world of adding machines. The sales guys had to bring buckets of water and do the rinsing off in front of everyone, because the hairdressers in the crowd were convinced we were doing something to the models behind the scenes.”

But even with this amazing product, the Gelbs were stuck. In the 3 decades since Clairol started, they fought a very strong stigma.

Back in those days, it was believed women who colored their hair were either actresses… or women who had intercourse for money. With no in-between. So unless you were a movie star, you didn’t want it known that you color your hair.

But with famous actresses creating the “blonde bombshell” look… what was a woman to do to look like her favourite movie stars?

So, even with this amazing product, Clairol hired an advertising agency to make a campaign for “Miss Clairol.”

The goal? Make the idea of hair coloring more socially acceptable and to emphasise natural-looking results.

And this is where we meet…

Shirley Polykoff

Shirley Polykoff was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding. The only female copywriter in that entire company.

She got the Clairol account, and there was no other person better for the job.

The inspiration for the Clairol campaign came from an experience she had 20 years earlier. An experience that became an in-joke between her and her husband, George.

See, in 1933, Shirley was invited by George to Passover dinner with his family. It was a very fancy and heavy dinner. Soup. Roasted chicken. A sweet potato and prune dish called tsimmes. Sponge cake. Tea with lemon. And a mixed fruit gelatine.

Shirely was keen to make a great impression on George’s parents, so she ate EVERYTHING put in front of her.

On the drive home, she was curious to hear how it went.

She asked George how it went. If his mother liked her. George kept dodging the question.

“That’s nice, George. But what did she say?”

George paused.

“She says you paint your hair.”

For weeks afterward, she kept imagining what she said. She could her George’s mother asking in Yiddish, as she cleared the dishes: “Zee paint dos huer? Odder zee paint dos nicht? Zee paint dos huer? Odder zee paint dos nicht?”

Which loosely translates to “Does she … or doesn’t she?”

So, when she had no ideas and a deadline coming up, she wrote a memo to the head art director.

On that stuff I talked to you about, Miss Clairol Hair Color Bath, I’ve got three approaches. One is great but I need at least two others for knock-downs at the meeting so I can sell the one I really want.

#1. “Naturally by Miss Clairol.” We use the same model in each ad, a kind of fresh-faced creature, and each time her hair color is different but it always looks natural. (Yeah, I know. It’s a nothing idea.)

#2. “Tear up those baby pictures. I’m a redhead now!” and then a pay-off line like: “No one will know you weren’t born a redhead” (or blonde or whatever). It has a nice kind of exuberance combined with naturalness. Only I don’t see these for long-term use and a good campaign has to snowball.

#3. Now here’s the one I really want. If I can get it sold to the client. Listen to this: “Does she … or doesn’t she?” (No, I’m not kidding. Didn’t you ever hear of the arresting question?) Followed by: “Only her mother knows for sure!” or “So natural, only her mother knows for sure!”

I may not do the mother part, though as far as I’m concerned mother is the ultimate authority. However, if Clairol goes retail, they may have a problem of offending beauty salons, where they are presently doing all of their business. So I may change the word “mother” to “hairdresser.” This could be awfully good business— turning the hairdresser into a color expert. Besides, it reinforces the claim of naturalness and, not so incidentally, glamorizes the salon.

The psychology is obvious. I know from myself. If anyone admires my hair, I’d rather die than admit I dye. And since I feel so strongly that the average woman is me, this great stress on naturalness is important.

So too for the models. No slick overly made-up fashion types. Our women must be like the gals in that book by Spectorsky, The Exurbanites. Shirtwaist types instead of glamor gowns. Cashmere-sweater-over-the-shoulder types.

Like larger-than-life portraits of the proverbial girl on the block who’s a little prettier than your wife and lives in a house slightly nicer than yours. Or the average model with her face washed. This, in itself, will be a new twist. All very P.T.A.-ish and ladylike, if you’ll pardon the expression. Very avant garde, you must admit, to have a “lady” in a haircoloring ad.

And let’s put her in real-life situations. Like a mother with a child . . . maybe heads together doing homework … or out in the playground going down a slide … or sailing a boat with her kid in the park. I used to do that with my little girls until I was ready to drop. Anyway, kids are fun to have in an ad that asks, “Does she … or doesn’t she?” wouldn’t you say?

Think about this. Bill, but remember especially that everything about these ads has to come through as absolutely real, straightforward, and honest. Even the tiniest phony note will flaw what we’re trying to accomplish.

For instance, the other night, it was about one in the morning, George and I stopped off at Ratner’s on the East Side for some scrambled eggs and bagels. We were practically alone in the place and just about ready to call it a night when the door opened and in walked a beautiful young man, spotless in a navy-blue Bar Mitzvah suit, except that he was obviously Irish.

He staggered over to a table near us and ordered some black coffee. He’d just escaped from being best man at his sister’s wedding and was wondering aloud why his sister had wanted to marry the S.O.B. Suddenly he looked over at George.

“My name is O’Brien,” he said, coming over to shake hands. George, wanting to make him feel at home, said, “Hi. My name is Murphy.”

O’Brien studied George’s face a moment, then went back to his coffee with a puzzled look on his face. “Hey, Murph,” he said after a while, “you’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

I’m not quite sure how this story applies, unless I’m just trying to say I don’t want to fool some of the people even some of the time.


On top of this, Polykoff suggested advertising in family magazines. Not women’s or fashion magazines. Specifically, Life magazine.

Life magazine turned it down. Apparently, having bikini girls on the cover was fine, but this ad was too suggestive?

In Foote, Cone & Belding, people were in two camps. One camp, mostly men, thought the same thing. That it was too suggestive.

The other camp, a minority of women, assured that the dirt was in the boys’ minds. The ad simply asks a woman does she or doesn’t she use haircoloring.

Polykoff insisted that Life magazine ask their female employees. They did. And they couldn’t find a single woman who admitted to a dirty meaning in those words. And so, the ad launched.

Everyone involved began getting rich. The magazines. The ad buyers. The typesetters. The makers of the dresses the models wore.

Most of all, Clairol made money.

Hair coloring went from being used by just 7% of women in the country to over 50%.

An Ad From 1956

Miss Clairol Does She… Or Doesn't She 1956 Ad

Polykoff’s memo covers the headline and subheading. Let’s look at the rest of the ad.

Remember, the focus of this campaign was to make it more socially acceptable to dye hair. And it featured “wholesome” women to do it.

This meant featuring mother-and-child, schoolteachers, secretaries, and so on.

Of course, once you have the answer, it’s easy as ABC. That’s why Miss Clairol is this teacher’s pet. And how the kids adore her bright looks … her pretty hair … her gay, happy outlook that makes even school seem like fun!

The first paragraph in the previous ad gave context to the outdoors picture. This one gives context to the woman and the children. And connects the positivity of that situation to Miss Clairol.

As every woman knows, it’s easier to be wonderful when you know you look wonderful! And the flattering, young hair color you get with Miss Clairol is wonderful no matter how you look at it! Finished tone is soft, ladylike. It gives the hair a luminous, silky quality that is the key to a natural look. Takes only minutes to add lasting color to faded hair … to hide gray … to beauty-treat difficult texture to new softness. Miss Clairol color never muddies or darkens … never brittle-izes your hair.

Loads of emotional copy here. Heavy emphasis on the emotional benefits of wonderful hair. Then we get to how fast it is (only minutes) to do 3 things:

  • Add color to faded hair
  • Hide gray hair
  • Soften difficult texture

And it will not let you down with dark muddy colors or by making your hair brittle.

That’s why America’s hairdressers rely on Miss Clairol, have given Miss Clairol treatments by the millions. With results so sure and easy, why should you deny yourself the joy and confidence of knowing you’re a younger-looking, happier-looking, completely attractive woman?

Borrows trust women have in hairdressers. Uses social proof from having millions of treatments. And asks you a rhetorical question.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to look younger, happier and more attractive? And who wouldn’t want all that in a way that is so sure and easy to get?

Try Miss Clairol yourself. Today. In Creme Formula or Regular. There’s sure to be a shade that’s a “natural” for you… whether it’s Topaz, Moongold, Sparkling Sherry or any of the many other lovely colors.

The call-to-action is expanded with a list of colors available.

An Ad From 1957

Miss Clairol Does She… Or Doesn't She 1957 Ad

That wonderfully radiant, outdoors-y look is more than just the reflection of a little clean air and sunshine. It’s the silky sheen of her hair, its clear sparkling color looks as fresh and natural in blazing sunlight as it does by the light of the moon. And that’s the beautiful difference with Miss Clairol! In every light, finished tone is soft, ladylike… gray is completely covered. And all it takes is minutes!

This section oozes with such colorful and lively language. You’ll see this a lot with any product that appeals to the senses.

Then in the last two sentences, we get to “harder” facts. It completely covers gray hair and it only taking a few minutes. Remember, assurance and ease are two very big selling points to use in copy.

That’s why most hairdressers recommend Miss Clairol—use it every time to put lasting young color back into fading hair… and to hide gray. With results so sure, why deny yourself the joy of knowing you’re a younger-looking, more attractive woman! Try Miss Clairol yourself. Today. In wonderful new Creme Formula or Regular.

Most women trust their hairdressers. To say that most hairdressers recommend Miss Clairol is to borrow that trust and put it on their product.

The copy also tells you WHEN to use it: when your hair is a bit dull or you want to hide gray hairs.

Again, it repeats offering assurance saying “results so sure.” And it asks you rhetorically if you don’t want to be a more youthful, attractive woman.

It then ends with a call-to-action with urgency.

More women use Clairol than any other hair coloring

Human beings are social creatures and we will often do what most other people are doing. So, when you say, “Hey, a lot of people are doing this”, you are using a concept called social proof. You are saying in a way, “Hey, this is something you should do too.”

Key Takeaways

In your business…

  • Look for ideas in faraway places. Lawrence and Joan got the idea for Clairol in France. You don’t need to travel to a faraway place, but the internet and talking to people with different backgrounds, in different industries and from different countries is a good substitute.
  • The easiest way to make more money? Open up the market for your product. Without this ad campaign, Clairol and all other hair color manufacturers wouldn’t have made anywhere as much money. Just 3 years after this campaign, Clairol got acquired by Bristol-Myers for a very handsome price.

In your copy…

  • Tap into personal life experience. And where you don’t have any, immerse yourself in the words and experiences of those who do. Pick up the phone. Go to online forums. Watch YouTube videos. Find the people with the problem your product solves and just listen.
  • When speaking to the senses, be colorful. The Clairol ads use very colorful and vivid descriptions about hair, the product and the target market.
  • Change the public conversation. From the models to the examples used, the entire ad campaign was to teach women that people in “wholesome” professions can also color their hair and that they wouldn’t fear being found out.
Sendy Opt-In Form
If you’re seeing this, I’d say you liked it enough to read the whole thing, right?

So why not subscribe to get future stories you’ll also like sent straight to your inbox?

Recommended Reading