Shirley Polykoff: Blonde Copywriters Have More Fun

Clairol Ad (by Shirley Polykoff)

(The following is a 40+ year old article on one of the great women copywriters, Shirley Polykoff. She was #24 on Advertising Age’s top 100 of the 20th Century and also one of the highest paid ad writers of the 1950′s and 1960′s. Though she wrote (and sloganeered) for giant corporate clients, her style was direct response at heart.)

Advertising: A Blonde Who Has More Fun

She likes the right copy that sells for Clairol.

Last month, Rosser Reeves told the Advertising Writers Association of New York that it should give its awards for ads that sold the product and not for mere excellence in creativity.

The Ted Bates chairman, speaking at the association’s awards banquet, mentioned a number of campaigns that he believed should have been honored, but were not. On the top of his list was Shirley’s Polykoff campaign for Clairol – “Does she …or doesn’t she? Hair color so natural only her hair dresser knows for sure.” Mr. Reeves documented his argument by pointing out that the campaign was so successful in selling the product that today Clairol spends more on advertising then Bristol-Myers original paid for the whole Clairol Company, the Clairol advertising budget is $36 million.

Early this month the Advertising Club of New York indicated that it would give it’s first ANDY Awards on the basis of the selling effect of ads. Mrs. Polykoff was a finalist, but not a winner.

Ms. Polykoff, to be sure, is not “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” as far as awards are concerned. One wall of her office at Foote, Cone and Belding, Inc, is “papered” with them – “I don’t know, I think altogether about 17.”

And on another wall in her office on the 36th floor of the Pan Am building, is another array of tributes – probably even more significant ones – that have been paid her over the years. Tacked onto a bulletin board, facing the desk, are dozens of press clippings and greeting cards and the like, in which her ad slogan has been parodied, “have become part of the language.”

This appears to excite her more than the awards.

But what excites her the most is her work itself. She gets all wrapped up in it just talking about it, and almost bubbles over with enthusiasm.

What is her work? Her title is vice president, associate creative director, copy group supervisor.

“That really means that I sit at the typewriter and write all these things,” she said the other day. “That’s all it means.”

However, it obviously means a great deal more. There are some in the industry who say that Ms. Polykoff is the highest priced copywriter in the business – “I don’t know that. I don’t know what the others are getting.”

She indicated, though, that she was being paid enough to live happily and that she was happy at Foote, Cone, which incidentally has about $30 million of the Clairol billings.

Ms. Polykoff gives much of the credit for her own success – not that she’s overly modest – to the people at Clairol. “They are the great clients of all time,” she said as she held an unlighted cigarette and somewhat nervously fingered the matches in the book.

She gave particular credit to Frank Mayers, senior vice president and management supervisor at Foote, Cone, where she marked her 10th anniversary this month, “because he recognizes an idea as fast as it comes. He never lets me lose an idea.”

In addition to the “Does she… or doesn’t she?” line, which she wrote in 1955, her ideas have included:

“Is it true blondes have more fun?”

“If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde”.

“The closer he gets, the better you look.”

“The girl with the beautiful mouth – she has it made.”

On the last one, Ms. Polykoff credits herself with being something of a pioneer.

“No one used the word mouth before,” she said. “Now they are all using it. I thought it was very sexy myself.”

Evidently, someone thought her original “Does she…or doesn’t she?” slogan also was somewhat sexy. For Ms. Polykoff, recalled that Life Magazine had first turned down the ad as being too suggestive.

Even in her own shop, she relates, there was a group that reacted with raised eyebrows and said: “Honey, you’re kidding” and “you will never get away with it.” She says that these were mostly male comments.

But she points out with pride that there was one man, the man, the client who liked it and who had already bought the campaign – “To his everlasting fame and good fortune, shall we say?” That man is Richard Gelb, then Clairol’s president, and now executive vice president of the parent company, Bristol-Myers.

What is the secret of her writing success?

“I’m a girl first and an advertising woman second,” she says by way of explanation. “I know what they respond to because I know what I respond to…

“I think I have the mind of a consumer…

“You have to think in terms of people…

“You watch reactions and all of a sudden you’re making jokes about it, and then the jokes come back to you and it’s no joke.”

Ms. Polykoff, however, feels that nothing comes in a blinding flash. “You have to feed the computer,” she says.

And you can’t write anything while you’re depressed. You have to stimulate yourself, and I don’t mean liquor. That only makes you dopey.”

Part of her own stimulation would appear to come from the fact that she is herself a Clairol blond. “You generate better when you think you’re gorgeous,” she said, and added:

“You know the feeling, the feeling you get when the bus stops right at your feet and you don’t have to run a block to catch it.”

Well, the bus may have stopped at Miss Polykoff’s feet, but she’s obviously running nevertheless. She’s in the midst of planning a new Clairol campaign, and also planning a Greco-Roman art tour in North Africa for this year’s vacation. Every Saturday, she runs to the city’s art galleries – “You get more darned ideas there.”

She also advises up-and-coming copywriters:

“I tell them to write to themselves. If they’re not going to fall for the line, nobody else will either.”

5 Responses to “Shirley Polykoff: Blonde Copywriters Have More Fun”

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  1. Alex Monroe says:

    Hey,
    Great article. I’m using it as a source for a paper for school, but do you mind telling me where you found it and who the author was?

    Thanks!!

  2. admin says:

    NY Times, Alex.

  3. John Searle says:

    Hi! I worked at FCB Chicago ’69 – ’72. (19.. not 18..). I’d come from Sydney (where I’d also worked at FCB, but not as an inter-office transfer). A monthly gig took me to NYC for a few days each month ADing for Dial soap. I remember Shirley as a happy energetic person. Yes, she was sweet enough to let me use her room as an office-away-from-office. I recall (hopefully, accurately) how, when Shirley was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame, she told the audience she didn’t envy them because of how complicated the ad business had become. In her day, the client had great trust in her and her ideas, without having to revert to decision-sharing. ‘If Shirley says jump – we jump.’ Kind regards to all. John, back in sunny Sydney

  4. Lawrence Bernstein says:

    Thanks so much, John. Really appreciate you sharing your personal experience about this ad legend. Good on you… as you say Down Under.

    Regs,

    Lawrence

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