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                     ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

                    TRUE COLORS
              Hair dye and the hidden history of postwar America.
                          BY MALCOLM GLADWELL

                ,                            God’s. Shirley dressed in deep oranges
                                             and deep reds and creamy beiges and

       URING    the Depression—long          royal hues. She wore purple suède and
          before she became one of the       aqua silk, and was the kind of person
          most famous copywriters of         who might take a couture jacket home
her day—Shirley Polykoff met a man           and embroider some new detail on it.
named George Halperin. He was the            Once, in the days when she had her
son of an Orthodox rabbi from Read-          own advertising agency, she was on her
ing, Pennsylvania, and soon after they       way to Memphis to make a presenta-
began courting he took her home for          tion to Maybelline and her taxi broke
Passover to meet his family. They ate        down in the middle of the expressway.
roast chicken, tzimmes, and sponge           She jumped out and flagged down a
cake, and Polykoff hit it off with Rabbi     Pepsi-Cola truck, and the truck driver
Halperin, who was warm and funny.            told her he had picked her up because
George’s mother was another story. She       he’d never seen anyone quite like her
was Old World Orthodox, with severe,         before. “Shirley would wear three out-
tightly pulled back hair; no one was         fits, all at once, and each one of them
good enough for her son.                     would look great,” Dick Huebner, who
    “How’d I do, George?” Shirley asked      was her creative director, says. She was
as soon as they got in the car for the       flamboyant and brilliant and vain in an
drive home. “Did your mother like me?”       irresistible way, and it was her convic-
    He was evasive. “My sister Mildred       tion that none of those qualities went
thought you were great.”                     with brown hair. The kind of person
    “That’s nice, George,” she said. “But    she spent her life turning herself into
what did your mother say?”                   did not go with brown hair. Shirley’s
    There was a pause. “She says you         parents were Hyman Polykoff, small-
paint your hair.” Another pause. “Well,      time necktie merchant, and Rose Poly-
do you?”                                     koff, housewife and mother, of East
    Shirley Polykoff was humiliated.         New York and Flatbush, by way of the
In her mind she could hear her fu-           Ukraine. Shirley ended up on Park Av-
ture mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer?      enue at Eighty-second. “If you asked
Oder fahrbt zi nisht? Does she color her     my mother ‘Are you proud to be Jew-
hair? Or doesn’t she?                        ish?’ she would have said yes,” her
    The answer, of course, was that she      daughter, Alix Nelson Frick, says. “She
did. Shirley Polykoff always dyed her        wasn’t trying to pass. But she believed in
hair, even in the days when the only         the dream, and the dream was that you
women who went blond were chorus             could acquire all the accoutrements of
girls and hookers. At home in Brook-         the established affluent class, which in-
lyn, starting when she was fifteen, she       cluded a certain breeding and a certain
would go to Mr. Nicholas’s beauty            kind of look. Her idea was that you
salon, one flight up, and he would            should be whatever you want to be, in-
“lighten the back” until all traces of her   cluding being a blonde.”
natural brown were gone. She thought             In 1956, when Shirley Polykoff was
she ought to be a blonde—or, to be           a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone &
more precise, she thought that the deci-     Belding, she was given the Clairol ac-
sion about whether she could be a            count. The product the company was
blonde was rightfully hers, and not          launching was Miss Clairol, the first


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72                                                                                              THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 22, 1999

                                                                                                       rose from seven per cent to
                                                                                                       more than forty per cent.
                                                                                                           Today, when women go
                                                                                                       from brown to blond to red to
                                                                                                       black and back again without
                                                                                                       blinking, we think of hair-color
                                                                                                       products the way we think of
                                                                                                       lipstick. On drugstore shelves
                                                                                                       there are bottles and bottles of
                                                                                                       hair-color products with names
                                                                                                       like Hydrience and Excellence
                                                                                                       and Preference and Natural In-
                                                                                                       stincts and Loving Care and
                                                                                                       Nice ’n Easy, and so on, each
                                                                                                       in dozens of different shades.
                                                                                                       Féria, the new, youth-oriented
                                                                                                       brand from L’Oréal, comes in
                                                                                                       Chocolate Cherry and Cham-
                                                                                                       pagne Cocktail—colors that
                                                                                                       don’t ask “Does she or doesn’t
                                                                                                       she?” but blithely assume “Yes,
                                                                                                       she does.” Hair dye is now a
                                                                                                       billion-dollar-a-year commodity.
                                                                                                           Yet there was a time, not so
                                                                                                       long ago—between, roughly
                          “He had himself pierced once too often.”                                     speaking, the start of Eisen-
                                                                                                       hower’s Administration and the
                                            •           •                                              end of Carter’s—when hair
                                                                                                       color meant something. Lines
hair-color bath that made it possible to        in-law. Shirley Polykoff knew immedi-         like “Does she or doesn’t she?” or the
lighten, tint, condition, and shampoo           ately what she wanted to say, because if      famous 1973 slogan for L’Oréal’s Pref-
at home, in a single step—to take,              she believed that a woman had a right         erence—“Because I’m worth it”—were
say, Topaz (for a champagne blond) or           to be a blonde she also believed that         as instantly memorable as “Winston
Moon Gold (for a medium ash), apply             a woman ought to be able to exercise          tastes good like a cigarette should” or
it in a peroxide solution directly to the       that right with discretion. “Does she         “Things go better with Coke.” They
hair, and get results in twenty minutes.        or doesn’t she?” she wrote, translating       lingered long after advertising usually
When the Clairol sales team demon-              from the Yiddish to the English. “Only        does and entered the language; they
strated their new product at the Inter-         her hairdresser knows for sure.” Clairol      somehow managed to take on mean-
national Beauty Show, in the old Statler        bought thirteen ad pages in Life in the       ings well outside their stated intention.
Hotel, across from Madison Square               fall of 1956, and Miss Clairol took off       Between the fifties and the seventies,
Garden, thousands of assembled beau-            like a bird. That was the beginning.          women entered the workplace, fought
ticians jammed the hall and watched,            For Nice ’n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough      for social emancipation, got the Pill, and
openmouthed, demonstration after dem-           shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, “The        changed what they did with their hair.
onstration. “They were astonished,” re-         closer he gets, the better you look.” For     To examine the hair-color campaigns of
calls Bruce Gelb, who ran Clairol for           Lady Clairol, the cream-and-bleach            the period is to see, quite unexpectedly,
years, along with his father, Lawrence,         combination that brought silver and           all these things as bound up together,
and his brother Richard. “This was to           platinum shades to Middle America,            the profound with the seemingly trivial.
the world of hair color what computers          she wrote, “Is it true blondes have more      In writing the history of women in the
were to the world of adding machines.           fun?” and then, even more memorably,          postwar era, did we forget something
The sales guys had to bring buckets of          “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a   important? Did we leave out hair?
water and do the rinsing off in front of        blonde!” (In the summer of 1962, just
everyone, because the hairdressers in the
crowd were convinced we were doing
something to the models behind the
                                                before “The Feminine Mystique” was
                                                published, Betty Friedan was, in the
                                                words of her biographer, so “bewitched”
                                                                                              W      HEN   the “Does she or doesn’t
                                                                                                        she?” campaign first ran, in
                                                                                              1956, most advertisements that were
scenes.”                                        by that phrase that she bleached her          aimed at women tended to be high
    Miss Clairol gave American women            hair.) Shirley Polykoff wrote the lines;      glamour—“cherries in the snow, fire and
the ability, for the first time, to color        Clairol perfected the product. And from       ice,” as Bruce Gelb puts it. But Shirley
their hair quickly and easily at home.          the fifties to the seventies, when Poly-       Polykoff insisted that the models for the
But there was still the stigma—the              koff gave up the account, the number of       Miss Clairol campaign be more like the
prospect of the disapproving mother-            American women coloring their hair            girl next door—“Shirtwaist types in-

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THE WOMAN IN THE PICTURE                                                                                                      73

stead of glamour gowns,” she wrote in her    a memo: “It’s almost too good to be           One of the stories Polykoff told about
original memo to Clairol. “Cashmere-         true!” With her sentimental idyll of       herself repeatedly—and that even ap-
sweater-over-the-shoulder types. Like        blond mother and child, Shirley Poly-      peared after her death last year, in her
larger-than-life portraits of the pro-       koff had created something iconic.         Times obituary—was that she felt that
verbial girl on the block who’s a little        “My mother wanted to be that            a woman never ought to make more
prettier than your wife and lives in a       woman in the picture,” Polykoff ’s         than her husband, and that only af-
house slightly nicer than yours.” The        daughter, Frick, says. “She was wedded     ter George’s death, in the early sixties,
model had to be a Doris Day type—not         to the notion of that suburban, taste-     would she let Foote, Cone & Belding
a Jayne Mansfield—because the idea            fully dressed, well-coddled matron who     raise her salary to its deserved level.
was to make hair color as respectable        was an adornment to her husband, a         “That’s part of the legend, but it isn’t
and mainstream as possible. One of the       loving mother, a long-suffering wife,      the truth,” Frick says. “The ideal was
earliest “Does she or doesn’t she?” tele-    a person who never overshadowed            always as vividly real to her as whatever
vision commercials featured a housewife,     him. She wanted the blond child. In        actual parallel reality she might be liv-
in the kitchen preparing hors d’œuvres       fact, I was blond as a kid, but when I     ing. She never wavered in her belief in
for a party. She is slender and pretty and   was about thirteen my hair got darker      that dream, even if you would point out
wearing a black cocktail dress and an        and my mother started bleaching it.”       to her some of the fallacies of that
apron. Her husband comes in, kisses her      Of course—and this is the contradic-       dream, or the weaknesses, or the inter-
on the lips, approvingly pats her very       tion central to those early Clairol cam-   nal contradictions, or the fact that she
blond hair, then holds the kitchen door      paigns—Shirley Polykoff wasn’t really      herself didn’t really live her life that
for her as she takes the tray of hors        that kind of woman at all. She always      way.” For Shirley Polykoff, the color of
d’œuvres out for her guests. It is an ex-    had a career. She never moved to the       her hair was a kind of useful fiction, a
quisitely choreographed domestic tab-        suburbs. “She maintained that women        way of bridging the contradiction be-
leau, down to the little dip the house-      were supposed to be feminine, and not      tween the kind of woman she was and
wife performs as she hits the kitchen        too dogmatic and not overshadow            the kind of woman she felt she ought
light switch with her elbow on her way       their husband, but she greatly over-       to be. It was a way of having it all. She
out the door. In one of the early print      shadowed my father, who was a very         wanted to look and feel like Doris Day
ads—which were shot by Richard Ave-          pure, unaggressive, intellectual type,”    without having to be Doris Day. In
don and then by Irving Penn—a woman          Frick says. “She was very flamboy-          twenty-seven years of marriage, during
with strawberry-blond hair is lying on       ant, very emotional, very dominating.”     which she bore two children, she spent
the grass, holding a dandelion between
her fingers, and lying next to her is
a girl of about eight or nine. What’s
striking is that the little girl’s hair is
the same shade of blond as her moth-
er’s. The “Does she or doesn’t she?”
print ads always included a child with
the mother to undercut the sexual un-
dertones of the slogan—to make it clear
that mothers were using Miss Clairol,
and not just “fast” women—and, most
of all, to provide a precise color match.
Who could ever guess, given the com-
parison, that Mom’s shade came out of
a bottle?
    The Polykoff campaigns were a sen-
sation. Letters poured in to Clairol.
“Thank you for changing my life,” read
one, which was circulated around the
company and used as the theme for a
national sales meeting. “My boyfriend,
Harold, and I were keeping company
for five years but he never wanted to set
a date. This made me very nervous. I
am twenty-eight and my mother kept
saying soon it would be too late for me.”
Then, the letter writer said, she saw a
Clairol ad in the subway. She dyed her
hair blond, and “that is how I am in
Bermuda now on my honeymoon with                              “You know what? I’m sick of clothes. I decided
Harold.” Polykoff was sent a copy with                           to go for a window treatment instead.”

74                                                                                        THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 22, 1999

exactly two weeks as a housewife, ev- (she’s the chairman of Spier NY ), is cial for the Peace Corps. (Single shot.
ery day of which was a domestic and a forcefully intelligent woman, who No cuts. A young couple lying on the
culinary disaster. “Listen, sweetie,” an speaks of her mother with honesty and beach. “It’s a big, wide wonderful world”
exasperated George finally told her. affection. “There were all those phrases is playing on a radio. Voice-over recites
“You make a lousy little woman in the that came to fruition at that time—you a series of horrible facts about less for-
kitchen.” She went back to work the know, ‘clothes make the man’ and ‘first tunate parts of the world: in the Middle
following Monday.                            impressions count.’ ” So the question East half the children die before their
    This notion of the useful fiction— “Does she or doesn’t she?” wasn’t just sixth birthday, and so forth. A news
of looking the part without being the about how no one could ever really broadcast is announced as the song ends,
part—had a particular resonance for know what you were doing. It was and the woman on the beach changes
the America of Shirley Polykoff ’s gen- about how no one could ever really the station.)
eration. As a teen-ager, Shirley Poly- know who you were. It really meant not               “Ilon? Omigod! She was one of the
koff tried to get a position as a clerk at “Does she?” but “Is she?” It really meant craziest people I ever worked with,” Ira
an insurance agency
and failed. Then she
tried again, at another
firm, applying as Shir-
ley Miller. This time,
she got the job. Her
husband, George, also
knew the value of ap-
pearances. The week
Polykoff first met him,
she was dazzled by
his worldly sophis-
tication, his knowl-
edge of out-of-the-
way places in Europe,
his exquisite taste in
fine food and wine.
The second week, she
learned that his ex-
pertise was all show,
derived from reading
the Times. The truth
was that George had
started his career load-
ing boxes in the base-        A 1963 ad from Shirley Polykoff ’s campaign. For her generation, hair color was a kind of useful fiction—a
ment of Macy’s by day
and studying law at night. He was a “Is she a contented homemaker or a fem- Madris, another colleague from those
faker, just as, in a certain sense, she was, inist, a Jew or a Gentile––or isn’t she?” years, recalls, using the word “crazy”
because to be Jewish—or Irish or Ital-                                                   as the highest of compliments. “And
ian or African-American or, for that                                                     brilliant. And dogmatic. And highly
matter, a woman of the fifties caught I AM ILON SPECHT, HEAR ME ROAR creative. We all believed back then
up in the first faint stirrings of femi-
nism––was to be compelled to fake it in     I  N 1973, Ilon Specht was working as a      that having a certain degree of neuro-
                                                 copywriter at the McCann-Erickson sis made you interesting. Ilon had a
a thousand small ways, to pass as one advertising agency, in New York. She degree of neurosis that made her very
thing when, deep inside, you were was a twenty-three-year-old college interesting.”
something else. “That’s the kind of dropout from California. She was re-                    At McCann, Ilon Specht was work-
pressure that comes from the immi- bellious, unconventional, and indepen- ing with L’Oréal, a French company
grants’ arriving and thinking that they dent, and she had come East to work that was trying to challenge Clairol’s
                                                                                                                                  GASLIGHT AD ARCHIVES, COMMACK, NY

don’t look right, that they are kind of on Madison Avenue, because that’s dominance in the American hair-color
funny-looking and maybe shorter than where people like that went to work market. L’Oréal had originally wanted
everyone else, and their clothes aren’t back then. “It was a different business to do a series of comparison spots, pre-
expensive,” Frick says. “That’s why in those days,” Susan Schermer, a long- senting research proving that their new
many of them began to sew, so they time friend of Specht’s, says. “It was the product—Preference—was technologi-
could imitate the patterns of the day. seventies. People were wearing feathers cally superior to Nice ’n Easy, because it
You were making yourself over. You to work.” At her previous agency, while delivered a more natural, translucent
were turning yourself into an Ameri- she was still in her teens, Specht had color. But at the last minute the cam-
can.” Frick, who is also in advertising written a famous television commer- paign was killed because the research
     WHEN PEOPLE WORE FEATHERS TO WORK                                                                                                 75

     hadn’t been done in the United States.      porate clients in shiny suits who would      originally thought to lie in its subtle jus-
     At McCann, there was panic. “We were        say that all the women in the office          tification of the fact that Preference cost
     four weeks before air date and we had       looked like models. She spoke about          ten cents more than Nice ’n Easy. But it
     nothing—nada,” Michael Sennott, a           what it meant to be young in a business      quickly became obvious that the last
     staffer who was also working on the ac-     dominated by older men, and about            line was the one that counted. On the
     count, says. The creative team locked it-   what it felt like to write a line of copy    strength of “Because I’m worth it,”
     self away: Specht, Madris—who was           that used the word “woman” and have          Preference began stealing market share
     the art director on the account—and a       someone cross it out and write “girl.”       from Clairol. In the nineteen-eighties,
     handful of others. “We were sitting in         “I was a twenty-three-year-old girl—      Preference surpassed Nice ’n Easy as the
     this big office,” Specht recalls. “And       a woman,” she said. “What would my           leading hair-color brand in the coun-
     everyone was discussing what the ad         state of mind have been? I could just        try, and two years ago L’ Oréal took
     should be. They wanted to do some-          see that they had this traditional view of   the phrase and made it the slogan for
     thing with a woman sitting by a win-        women, and my feeling was that I’m           the whole company. An astonishing
                                                                                                                 seventy-one per cent
                                                                                                                 of American women
                                                                                                                 can now identify that
                                                                                                                 phrase as the L’Oréal
                                                                                                                 signature, which, for
                                                                                                                 a slogan—as opposed
                                                                                                                 to a brand name—
                                                                                                                 is almost without

                                                                                                                  F   the ver y
                                                                                                                beginning, the
                                                                                                          Preference campaign
                                                                                                          was unusual. Poly-
                                                                                                          koff ’s Clairol spots
                                                                                                          had male voice-overs.
                                                                                                          In the L’Oréal ads,
                                                                                                          the model herself
                                                                                                          spoke, directly and
                                                                                                          personally. Polykoff ’s
                                                                                                          commercials were
                                                                                                          they were about what
                                                                                                          the group was saying
way of bridging the contradiction between the woman you were and the woman you were supposed to be.       (“Does she or doesn’t
                                                                                                          she?”) or what a hus-
    dow, and the wind blowing through the not writing an ad about looking good band might think (“The closer he gets,
    curtains. You know, one of those fake for men, which is what it seems to me the better you look”). Specht’s line was
    places with big, glamorous curtains. The that they were doing. I just thought, what a woman says to herself. Even
    woman was a complete object. I don’t Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five in the choice of models, the two cam-
    think she even spoke. They just didn’t minutes. It was very personal. I can re- paigns diverged. Polykoff wanted fresh,
    get it. We were in there for hours.”       cite to you the whole commercial, be- girl-next-door types. McCann and
        Ilon Specht is now the executive cause I was so angry when I wrote it.” L’Oréal wanted models who somehow
    creative director of Jordan, McGrath,         Specht sat stock still and lowered embodied the complicated mixture of
    Case & Partners, in the Flatiron district, her voice: “I use the most expensive strength and vulnerability implied by
    with a big office overlooking Fifth Ave- hair color in the world. Preference, by “Because I’m worth it.” In the late sev-
    nue. She has long, thick black hair, held L’Oréal. It’s not that I care about money. enties, Meredith Baxter Birney was
    in a loose knot at the top of her head, It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not the brand spokeswoman. At that time,
    and lipstick the color of maraschino just the color. I expect great color. she was playing a recently divorced
    cherries. She talks fast and loud, and What’s worth more to me is the way mom going to law school on the TV
    swivels in her chair as she speaks, and my hair feels. Smooth and silky but drama “Family.” McCann scheduled
    when people walk by her office they with body. It feels good against my her spots during “Dallas” and other
    sometimes bang on her door, as if the neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending shows featuring so-called “silk blouse”
    best way to get her attention is to be as more for L’Oréal. Because I’m”—and women––women of strength and inde-
    loud and emphatic as she is. Reminisc- here Specht took her fist and struck her pendence. Then came Cybill Shepherd,
    ing not long ago about the seventies, chest—“worth it.”                              at the height of her run as the brash,
    she spoke about the strangeness of cor-       The power of the commercial was independent Maddie on “Moonlight-
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                      ing,” in the eighties. Now the brand          there was something too brazen about
                      is represented by Heather Locklear,           ‘I’m worth it,’ ” Frick told me. “She was
                      the tough and sexy star of “Melrose           always concerned with what people
                      Place.” All the L’Oréal spokeswomen           around her might think. She could
                      are blondes, but blondes of a partic-         never have come out with that bald-
                      ular type. In his brilliant 1995 book,        faced an equation between hair color
                      “Big Hair: A Journey into the Transfor-       and self-esteem.”
                      mation of Self,” the Canadian anthro-             The truth is that Polykoff ’s sensibil-
                      pologist Grant McCracken argued for           ity—which found freedom in assimila-
                      something he calls the “blondness pe-         tion—had been overtaken by events.
                      riodic table,” in which blondes are di-       In one of Polykoff ’s “Is it true blondes
                      vided into six categories: the “bombshell     have more fun?” commercials for Lady
                      blonde” (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe),           Clairol in the sixties, for example, there
                      the “sunny blonde” (Doris Day, Goldie         is a moment that by 1973 must have
                      Hawn), the “brassy blonde” (Candice           been painful to watch. A young woman,
                      Bergen), the “dangerous blonde” (Shar-        radiantly blond, is by a lake, being
                      on Stone), the “society blonde” (C. Z.        swung around in the air by a darkly
                      Guest), and the “cool blonde” (Marlene        handsome young man. His arms are
                      Dietrich, Grace Kelly). L’Oréal’s inno-       around her waist. Her arms are around
                      vation was to carve out a niche for it-       his neck, her shoes off, her face aglow.
                      self in between the sunny blondes—the         The voice-over is male, deep and sonor-
                      “simple, mild, and innocent” blondes—         ous. “Chances are,” the voice says, “she’d
                      and the smart, bold, brassy blondes,          have gotten the young man anyhow, but
                      who, in McCracken’s words, “do not            you’ll never convince her of that.” Here
                      mediate their feelings or modulate their      was the downside to Shirley Polykoff ’s
                      voices.”                                      world. You could get what you wanted
                          This is not an easy sensibility to cap-   by faking it, but then you would never
                      ture. Countless actresses have audi-          know whether it was you or the bit of
                      tioned for L’Oréal over the years and         fakery that made the difference. You ran
                      been turned down. “There was one              the risk of losing sight of who you re-
                      casting we did with Brigitte Bardot,” Ira     ally were. Shirley Polykoff knew that
                      Madris recalls (this was for another          the all-American life was worth it, and
                      L’Oréal product), “and Brigitte, being        that “he”—the handsome man by the
                      who she is, had the damnedest time            lake, or the reluctant boyfriend who fi-
                      saying that line. There was something         nally whisks you off to Bermuda—was
                      inside of her that didn’t believe it. It      worth it. But, by the end of the sixties,
                      didn’t have any conviction.” Of course it     women wanted to know that they were
                      didn’t: Bardot is bombshell, not sassy.       worth it, too.
                      Clairol made a run at the Preference
                      sensibility for itself, hiring Linda Evans
                                                                      WHAT HERTA HERZOG KNEW
                      in the eighties as the pitchwoman for
                      Ultress, the brand aimed at Preference’s
                      upscale positioning. This didn’t work,
                      either. Evans, who played the adoring
                                                                    W      HY   are Shirley Polykoff and Ilon
                                                                              Specht important? That seems
                                                                    like a question that can easily be an-
                      wife of Blake Carrington on “Dynasty,”        swered in the details of their campaigns.
                      was too sunny. (“The hardest thing she        They were brilliant copywriters, who
                      did on that show,” Michael Sennott            managed in the space of a phrase to
                      says, perhaps a bit unfairly, “was re-        capture the particular feminist sensibili-
                      arrange the flowers.”)                         ties of the day. They are an example of a
                          Even if you got the blonde right,         strange moment in American social his-
                      though, there was still the matter of         tory when hair dye somehow got tan-
                      the slogan. For a Miss Clairol cam-           gled up in the politics of assimilation
                      paign in the seventies, Polykoff wrote        and feminism and self-esteem. But in a
                      a series of spots with the tag line “This     certain way their stories are about much
                      I do for me.” But “This I do for me”          more: they are about the relationship we
                      was at best a halfhearted approxima-          have to the products we buy, and about
                      tion of “Because I’m worth it”––par-          the slow realization among advertisers
                      ticularly for a brand that had spent its      that unless they understood the psycho-
                      first twenty years saying something en-        logical particulars of that relationship—
                      tirely different. “My mother thought          unless they could dignify the transac-

TNY—3/22/99—PAGE 77
78                                                                                        THE NEW YORKER, MARCH 22, 1999

tions of everyday life by granting them     way baseball fans talk about the 1927       ings, furnishings—a bright, dazzling
meaning—they could not hope to reach        Yankees. Tinker was the brainchild of       white. It was supposed to be a think
the modern consumer. Shirley Polykoff       the legendary adman Marion Harper,          tank, but Tinker was so successful so
and Ilon Specht perfected a certain         who came to believe that the agency he      fast that clients were soon lined up out-
genre of advertising which did just this,   was running, McCann-Erickson, was           side the door. When Buick wanted a
and one way to understand the Madi-         too big and unwieldy to be able to con-     name for its new luxury coupé, the Tin-
son Avenue revolution of the postwar        sider things properly. His solution was     ker Group came up with Riviera. When
era is as a collective attempt to define     to pluck a handful of the very best and     Bulova wanted a name for its new quartz
and extend that genre. The revolution       brightest from McCann and set them          watch, Tinker suggested Accutron. Tin-
was led by a handful of social scien-       up, first in the Waldorf Towers (in          ker also worked with Coca-Cola and
tists, chief among whom was an ele-         the suite directly below the Duke and       Exxon and Westinghouse and countless
gant, Viennese-trained psychologist by      Duchess of Windsor’s and directly           others, whose names—according to the
the name of Herta Herzog. What did          above General Douglas MacArthur’s)          strict standards of secrecy observed by
Herta Herzog know? She knew—or, at          and then, more permanently, in the          the group—they would not divulge.
least, she thought she knew—the the-        Dorset Hotel, on West Fifty-fourth          Tinker started with four partners and a
ory behind the success of slogans like      Street, overlooking the Museum of           single phone. But by the end of the six-
“Does she or doesn’t she?” and “Because     Modern Art. The Tinker Group rented         ties it had taken over eight floors of the
I’m worth it,” and that makes Herta         the penthouse, complete with a huge         Dorset.
Herzog, in the end, every bit as im-        terrace, Venetian-tiled floors, a double-        What distinguished Tinker was its
portant as Shirley Polykoff and Ilon        height living room, an antique French       particular reliance on the methodology
Specht.                                     polished-pewter bar, a marble fireplace,     known as motivational research, which
    Herzog worked at a small advertis-      spectacular skyline views, and a rotating   was brought to Madison Avenue in the
ing agency called Jack Tinker & Part-       exhibit of modern art (hung by the          nineteen-forties by a cadre of European
ners, and people who were in the busi-      partners for motivational purposes),        intellectuals trained at the University of
ness in those days speak of Tinker the      with everything—walls, carpets, ceil-       Vienna. Advertising research up until
                                                                                        that point had been concerned with
                                                                                        counting heads—with recording who
                                                                                        was buying what. But the motivational
                                                                                        researchers were concerned with why:
                                                                                        Why do people buy what they do?
                                                                                        What motivates them when they shop?
                                                                                        The researchers devised surveys, with
                                                                                        hundreds of questions, based on Freud-
                                                                                        ian dynamic psychology. They used
                                                                                        hypnosis, the Rosenzweig Picture-
                                                                                        Frustration Study, role-playing, and
                                                                                        Rorschach blots, and they invented
                                                                                        what we now call the focus group.
                                                                                        There was Paul Lazarsfeld, one of the
                                                                                        giants of twentieth-century sociology,
                                                                                        who devised something called the
                                                                                        Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer,
                                                                                        a little device with buttons to record
                                                                                        precisely the emotional responses of re-
                                                                                        search subjects. There was Hans Zei-
                                                                                        sel, who had been a patient of Alfred
                                                                                        Adler’s in Vienna, and went to work at
                                                                                        McCann-Erickson. There was Ernest
                                                                                        Dichter, who had studied under La-
                                                                                        zarsfeld at the Psychological Institute
                                                                                        in Vienna, and who did consulting for
                                                                                        hundreds of the major corporations of
                                                                                        the day. And there was Tinker’s Herta
                                                                                        Herzog, perhaps the most accomplished
                                                                                        motivational researcher of all, who
                                                                                        trained dozens of interviewers in the
                                                                                        Viennese method and sent them out
                                                                                        to analyze the psyche of the American
                      “Have I told you about my new belt?”                                  “For Puerto Rican rum once, Herta

THE GRA EMINENCE                                                                                                                  79

wanted to do a study of why people
drink, to tap into that below-the-
surface kind of thing,” Rena Bartos,
a former advertising executive who
worked with Herta in the early days,
recalls. “We would would invite some-
one out to drink and they would order
whatever they normally order, and we
would administer a psychological test.
Then we’d do it again at the very end of
the discussion, after the drinks. The
point was to see how people’s person-
ality was altered under the influence
of alcohol.” Herzog helped choose the
name of Oasis cigarettes, because her
psychological research suggested that
the name—with its connotations of
cool, bubbling springs—would have the
greatest appeal to the orally-fixated
    “Herta was graceful and gentle and
articulate,” Herbert Krugman, who               “Sorry to crash the party, folks, but all the little people that made it happen
worked closely with Herzog in those                were just discovered buried in a shallow grave outside Bakersfield.”
years, says. “She had enormous insights.
Alka-Seltzer was a client of ours, and                                             •          •

they were discussing new approaches
for the next commercial. She said, ‘You      view, which was the specialty that had        terview I say, ‘Please draw me a figure—
show a hand dropping an Alka-Seltzer         been developed in Vienna at the Ös-           anything you want—and after the fig-
tablet into a glass of water. Why not        terreichische Wirtschaftspsychologische       ure is drawn tell me a story about the
show the hand dropping two? You’ll           Forschungsstelle,” Herzog told me. “It        figure.’ ”
double sales.’ And that’s just what hap-     was interviewing not with direct ques-            When Herzog asked her subjects to
pened. Herta was the gray eminence.          tions and answers but where you open          draw a figure at the end of an interview,
Everybody worshipped her.”                   some subject of the discussion relevant       she was trying to extract some kind of
    Herta Herzog is now eighty-nine.         to the topic and then let it go. You have     narrative from them, something that
After retiring from Tinker, she moved        the interviewer not talk but simply help      would shed light on their unstated de-
back to Europe, first to Germany and          the person with little questions like ‘And    sires. She was conducting, as she says, a
then to Austria, her homeland. She           anything else?’ As an interviewer, you        psychoanalytic session. But she wouldn’t
wrote an analysis of the TV show “Dal-       are not supposed to influence me. You          ask about hair-color products in order
las” for the academic journal Society. She   are merely trying to help me. It was a        to find out about you, the way a psy-
taught college courses on communica-         lot like the psychoanalytic method.”          choanalyst might; she would ask about
tions theory. She conducted a study on       Herzog was sitting, ramrod straight, in       you in order to learn about hair-color
the Holocaust for the Vidal Sassoon          a chair in her living room. She was           products. She saw that the psychoana-
Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism,       wearing a pair of black slacks and a          lytic interview could go both ways. You
in Jerusalem. Today, she lives in the        heavy brown sweater to protect her            could use the techniques of healing to
mountain village of Leutasch, half an        against the Alpine chill. Behind her was      figure out the secrets of selling. “Does
hour’s hard drive up into the Alps from      row upon row of bookshelves, filled            she or doesn’t she?” and “Because I’m
Innsbruck, in a white picture-book cot-      with the books of a postwar literary and      worth it” did the same thing: they not
tage with a sharply pitched roof. She is     intellectual life: Mailer in German,          only carried a powerful and redemptive
a small woman, slender and composed,         Reisman in English. Open and face             message, but—and this was their real
her once dark hair now streaked with         down on a long couch perpendicular to         triumph—they succeeded in attaching
gray. She speaks in short, clipped, pre-     her chair was the latest issue of the psy-    that message to a five-dollar bottle of
cise sentences, in flawless, though heav-     choanalytic journal Psyche. “Later on, I      hair dye. The lasting contribution of
ily accented, English. If you put her in a   added all kinds of psychological things       motivational research to Madison Av-
room with Shirley Polykoff and Ilon          to the process, such as word-association      enue was to prove that you could do this
Specht, the two of them would talk           tests, or figure drawings with a story.        for just about anything—that the prod-
and talk and wave their long, bejewelled     Suppose you are my respondent and the         ucts and the commercial messages with
fingers in the air, and she would sit un-     subject is soap. I’ve already talked to you   which we surround ourselves are as
obtrusively in the corner and listen.        about soap. What you see in it. Why           much a part of the psychological fur-
“Marion Harper hired me to do qualita-       you buy it. What you like about it. Dis-      niture of our lives as the relationships
tive research—the qualitative inter-         like about it. Then at the end of the in-     and emotions and experiences that are

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normally the subject of psychoanalytic
    “There is one thing we did at Tinker                                       THAT MAN
that I remember well,” Herzog told me,
returning to the theme of one of her, and                 Oh days given over to a fruitless
Tinker’s, coups. “I found out that peo-                   insistence on forgetting the personal history
ple were using Alka-Seltzer for stom-                     of a minor poet from the bottom
ach upset, but also for headaches,” Her-                  of the world, to whom the stars or fate
zog said. “We learned that the stomach                    granted a body that leaves behind no child
ache was the kind of ache where many                      and blindness, which is a shadow and a prison,
people tended to say ‘It was my fault.’                   and old age, which is death’s day breaking,
Alka-Seltzer had been mostly adver-                       and fame, which no one ever deserves
tised in those days as a cure for overeat-                and the habit of contriving lines of verse
ing, and overeating is something you                      and an old fondness for encyclopedias
have done. But the headache is quite                      and for maps some artist’s delicate hand has drawn
different. It is something imposed on                     and for slender ivory and an incurable
you.” This was, to Herzog, the classic                    longing to have Latin back and fragmentary
psychological insight. It revealed Alka-                  memories of Geneva and Edinburgh
Seltzer users to be divided into two ap-                  and dates and names that slip the mind
parently incompatible camps—the cul-                      and a fondness for the Orient, which peoples
prit and the victim—and it suggested                      of the miscellaneous Orient do not share
that the company had been wooing one                      and glimmers of hope for what tomorrow may bring
at the expense of the other. More im-                     and an overuse of etymology
portant, it suggested that advertisers,                   and the iron beat of Saxon syllables
with the right choice of words, could                     and the moon that never ceases to surprise
resolve that psychological dilemma with                   and that bad habit, Buenos Aires,
one or, better yet, two little white tab-                 and the taste of grapes, of water
lets. Herzog allowed herself a small                      and of cocoa, sweetness out of Mexico,
smile. “So I said the nice thing would be                 and certain coins and an hourglass
if you could find something that com-                      and who, one afternoon like all the rest,
bines these two elements. The copy-                       settles for these lines.
writer came up with ‘the blahs.’ ” Herzog
repeated the phrase, “the blahs,” because                                                      —JORGE LUIS BORGES
it was so beautiful. “The blahs was not                         (Translated, from the Spanish, by Alan S. Trueblood.)
one thing or the other—it was not the
stomach or the head. It was both.”
                                             of rococo shrubbery that took their sub-       were getting more than our fair share

T    HIS  notion of household products
       as psychological furniture is, when
you think about it, a radical idea. When
                                             stance from permanents, their form
                                             from rollers, and their rigidity from hair
                                             spray.” In the Herzogian world view, the
                                                                                            of new users to the category—women
                                                                                            who were just beginning to color their
                                                                                            hair,” Sennott told me. “And within that
we give an account of how we got to          reasons we might give to dismiss Sas-          group we were getting those undergo-
where we are, we’re inclined to credit       soon’s revolution—that all he was dis-         ing life changes, which usually meant
the philosophical over the physical, and     pensing was a haircut, that it took just       divorce. We had far more women who
the products of art over the products of     half an hour, that it affects only the way     were getting divorced than Clairol had.
commerce. In the list of sixties social      you look, that you will need another like      Their children had grown, and some-
heroes, there are musicians and poets        it in a month—are the very reasons that        thing had happened, and they were re-
and civil-rights activists and sports fig-    Sassoon is important. If a revolution is       inventing themselves.” They felt differ-
ures. Herzog’s implication is that such a    not accessible, tangible, and replicable,      ent, and Ilon Specht gave them the
high-minded list is incomplete. What,        how on earth can it be a revolution?           means to look different—and do we re-
say, of Vidal Sassoon? In the same pe-           “Because I’m worth it” and “Does           ally know which came first, or even how
riod, he gave the world the Shape, the       she or doesn’t she?” were powerful, then,      to separate the two? They changed their
Acute Angle, and the One-Eyed Un-            precisely because they were commercials,       lives and their hair. But it wasn’t one
garo. In the old “cosmology of cosme-        for commercials come with products at-         thing or the other. It was both.
tology,” McCracken writes, “the client       tached, and products offer something that
counted only as a plinth . . . the con-
veyor of the cut.” But Sassoon made in-
dividualization the hallmark of the hair-
                                             songs and poems and political move-
                                             ments and radical ideologies do not,
                                             which is an immediate and affordable
                                                                                           S   INCE  the mid-nineties, the spokes-
                                                                                                person for Clairol’s Nice ’n Easy
                                                                                            has been Julia Louis-Dreyfus, better
cut, liberating women’s hair from the        means of transformation. “We discov-           known as Elaine, from “Seinfeld.” In
hair styles of the times—from, as Mc-        ered in the first few years of the ‘Be-         the Clairol tradition, she is the girl next
Cracken puts it, those “preposterous bits    cause I’m worth it’ campaign that we           door—a postmodern Doris Day. But

TNY—3/22/99—PAGE 80

the spots themselves could not be less      ters—and our brand of hair dye mat-          anger has turned to glamour. We have
like the original Polykoff campaigns        ters, too. Carol Hamilton, L’Oréal’s vice-   been left with just a few bars of the
for Miss Clairol. In the best of them,      president of marketing, says she can         original melody. But even that is enough
Louis-Dreyfus says to the dark-haired       walk into a hair-color focus group and       to insure that “Because I’m worth it”
woman in front of her on a city bus,        instantly distinguish the Clairol users      will never be confused with “Does she
“You know, you’d look great as a blonde.”   from the L’Oréal users. “The L’Oréal         or doesn’t she?” Specht says, “It meant I
Louis-Dreyfus then shampoos in Nice ’n      user always exhibits a greater air of con-   know you don’t think I’m worth it, be-
Easy Shade 104 right then and there,        fidence, and she usually looks better—        cause that’s what it was with the guys in
to the gasps and cheers of the other        not just her hair color, but she always      the room. They were going to take a
passengers. It is Shirley Polykoff turned   has spent a little more time putting on      woman and make her the object. I was
upside down: funny, not serious; public,    her makeup, styling her hair,” Hamilton      defensive and defiant. I thought, I’ll
not covert.                                 told me. “Her clothing is a little bit       fight you. Don’t you tell me what I am.
    L’Oréal, too, has changed. Meredith     more fashion-forward. Absolutely, I can      You’ve been telling me what I am for
Baxter Birney said “Because I’m worth       tell the difference.” Jeanne Matson,         generations.” As she said “fight,” she ex-
it” with an earnestness appropriate to      Hamilton’s counterpart at Clairol, says      tended the middle finger of her right
the line. By the time Cybill Shepherd       she can do the same thing. “Oh, yes,”        hand. Shirley Polykoff would never
became the brand spokeswoman, in the        Matson told me. “There’s no doubt.           have given anyone the finger. She was
eighties, it was almost flip—a nod to        The Clairol woman would represent            too busy exulting in the possibilities for
the materialism of the times—and            more the American-beauty icon, more          self-invention in her America—a land
today, with Heather Locklear, the spots     naturalness. But it’s more of a beauty       where a single woman could dye her
have a lush, indulgent feel. “New Pref-     for me, as opposed to a beauty for the       hair and end up lying on a beach with
erence by L’Oréal,” she says in one of      external world. L’Oréal users tend to be     a ring on her finger. At her retirement
the current commercials. “Pass it on.       a bit more aloof. There is a certain         party, in 1973, Polykoff reminded the
You’re worth it.” The “because”—which       warmth you see in the Clairol people.        assembled executives of Clairol and of
gave Ilon Specht’s original punch line      They interact with each other more.          Foote, Cone & Belding about the ava-
such emphasis—is gone. The forceful         They’ll say, ‘I use Shade 101.’ And          lanche of mail that arrived after their
“I’m” has been replaced by “you’re.” The    someone else will say, ‘Ah, I do, too!’      early campaigns: “Remember that letter
Clairol and L’Oréal campaigns have          There is this big exchange.”                 from the girl who got to a Bermuda
converged. According to the Spectra            These are not exactly the brand per-      honeymoon by becoming a blonde?”
marketing firm, there are almost exactly     sonalities laid down by Polykoff and             Everybody did.
as many Preference users as Nice ’n         Specht, because this is 1999, and not            “Well,” she said, with what we can
Easy users who earn between fifty            1956 or 1973. The complexities of Poly-      only imagine was a certain sweet vin-
thousand and seventy-five thousand           koff ’s artifice have been muted. Specht’s    dication, “I wrote it.” o
dollars a year, listen to reli-
gious radio, rent their apart-
ments, watch the Weather
Channel, bought more than
six books last year, are fans of
professional football, and be-
long to a union.
    But it is a tribute to Ilon
Specht and Shirley Polykoff ’s
legacy that there is still a real
difference between the two
brands. It’s not that there are
Clairol women or L’Oréal
women. It’s something a little
subtler. As Herzog knew, all
of us, when it comes to con-
structing our sense of self,
borrow bits and pieces, ideas
and phrases, rituals and prod-
ucts from the world around
us—over-the-counter eth-
nicities that shape, in some
small but meaningful way,
our identities. Our religion
matters, the music we listen
to matters, the clothes we wear
matter, the food we eat mat-                                          “What do you think?”

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