When flipping through a magazine or absently staring at an ad on the side of a bus, it's not often that we consider the lasting impact of the ads around us. But when you look back at the most famous beauty campaigns in history, it becomes clear that ads do more than just get you to buy a new lipstick shade. They have an uncanny way of capturing the ideas of our times — highlighting what we think of beauty, women, and social issues — and, more importantly, they also have the power to turn all of that on its head.
When you look at a nail polish ad, you might just register the chrome and bright shades splashed across the page, trying to convince you to fork over $6 to get that same level of glam. But in the 1920s, those same ads convinced women that if they didn't paint their nails, they would be publicly admitting they spent their work week doing hard labor instead of having tea in hotels. In the 1950s Clairol wiped away the stigma of coloring one's hair with one simple question, and in the '90s a routine campaign opened up the doors for black women to stop being an "extra" in the beauty world, and become part of the whole. Our ads are like the narrators of our times, and the history of beauty campaigns makes that clear.
1. Odorono: “Within The Curve Of A Woman’s Arm”
In the early 1900s, pit stains were seen as a pharmacist's domain, and not many women believed they needed to worry about a prescription. Deodorant was seen as medicine back then, and not many people thought they smelled so bad that they needed a doctor's attention. So when highschooler Edna Murphey borrowed $150 from her grandpa to start a deodorant business called Odorono, she understood she had to move the product away from medicine cabinets and into makeup bags — and she knew just how to do it. She had to put the fear of stink in women everywhere, and the only way to do that was to threaten their love lives.
The Odorono ad was set up like a melodrama, where we see our couple turning towards each other in the moonlight, about to kiss. But underneath was a warning of just how quickly love could be lost when dank underarms are involved.
According to Dr. Juliann Sivulka, author of Soap, Sex, and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising, this was the first ad in marketing history that used an emotional appeal, warning women of the heartbreak they could face if they chose to skip this critical step. "With this ad, Young penned one of the most famous lines in advertising history: 'Within the Curve of Women’s Arm' followed by a subhead that read: 'A frank discussion of a subject too often avoided.' The copy went on to elaborate on the idea that you could offend other people through perspiration odor and not even know it yourself," Dr. Sivulka explained.
And it worked — sales soared by 112 percent, and women had a whole new beauty problem to obsess over. And with that, shame advertising was going to become the new norm.
2. Cutex: The Rise Of Nail Care
Speaking of inventing beauty insecurities, the whole nail polish industry started much in the same way. Northam Warren of Cutex got into the hand business by kick-starting a campaign that cautioned how low-class un-manicured nails made women seem. Since it was during the early 20th century, his products didn't push polish yet but rather hand maintenance, like creams and nail tools. "It’s like the difference between skin creams and makeup. Nail polish and makeup can have certain connotations especially with regard to 'class' status — especially during the early 20th century, which had not completely shed all of the old Victorian notions of women’s roles," Professor Denise H. Sutton, Business Department, at CUNY's City Tech, shares with Bustle in an interview.
"Advertisers were already cautioning women in the early 20th century to take care of their hands so as not to reveal the work they do," Sutton explains. "Hands can reveal so much about a person. Working hands are probably going to have dry cuticles, cracked or maybe even split nails, dry skin, callouses, and vestiges from the type of work one does: Dirt under nails and tanned skin for farmers, field hands, and gardeners; cracked, red skin on the hands of washer women, domestic servants, housewives; burn marks on the hands of welders or short order cooks!"
Having buffed nails and smooth hands was a social marker of wealth and elegance, proving you couldn't possibly have cracked skin because you didn't partake in manual labor.
And the image worked: In 1916 Cutex was raking in only $150,000, but by 1920 sales rose to $2,000,000. That's the equivalent of making roughly $3,500,000 in today's times, and jumping up to $25,500,000.
3. Listerine: Often A Bridesmaid, Never A Bride
Listerine jumped on the bandwagon with deodorant and polish, and threw its own shame marketing into the ring to see if it could rake in some earnings. Positioning themselves as the one product that stands between you and the white picket fence, the mouthwash marketer was actually the one to invent the wistful line of "always a bridesmaid, never a bride."
In 1923 the campaign featured a forlorn looking Edna, weeping into her bridesmaid bouquet. The copy read, "Edna's case was a really pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married — or about to be. Yet no one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she. And as her birthdays crept towards that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever. She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride."
By positioning itself as a beauty tool that one couldn't afford to be without if they wanted to get off the market, Listerine's sales skyrocketed. It rose from around $100,000 in 1921 to over $4 million in 1927. Tales of woe worked.
4. Clairol: Does She Or Doesn't She?
The year was 1956 and if you so much as showed up to the grocery store in pants, lit a cigarette at a red light, or skipped stockings that morning, you'd earn yourself a disapproving sniff from society as a whole. Women were slowly progressing outside of the kitchen and further into the public sphere, but some things stayed stubbornly old school — especially in the beauty department.
While many women had lipsticks and eyeshadows crowding their bathroom sink ledges, one realm of self-care was still strangely taboo: Coloring one's hair. Historically, only chorus girls and street workers were brazen enough to change their color, and so the stigma stayed that a highlight or two was the trademark of a bad girl.
This was a problem for Clairol who, in 1956, stocked grocery store shelves with a "hair color bath," which let you skip the salon appointment and color your roots in the privacy of your locked bathroom.
But how to convince women to take the mortifying step of putting a kit into their shopping carts? Enter the slogan of “Does she…or doesn’t she? Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure!" It reassured women that the hair color would be so discreet that not even the nosiest of your neighbors would be able to notice you updated your beehive.
The idea for the game-changing slogan actually came to mind a few decades prior to the moment the assignment came to the ad agency. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius, during the Great Depression, the copywriter who penned the famous slogan, Shirley Polykoff, was off to Passover with her fiance, ready to meet his Old World Orthodox mother over sponge cake and tzimmes. "In 1933, just before I was married, my husband had taken me to meet the woman who would become my mother-in-law," Polykoff explained. "When we got in the car after dinner, I asked him, 'How'd I do? Did your mother like me?' and he told me his mother had said, 'She paints her hair, doesn't she?' He asked me, 'Well do you?' It became a joke between my husband and me; anytime we saw someone who was stunning or attractive we'd say, 'Does she or doesn't she?'" Twenty years later, her inside joke became one of the most influential slogans of advertising history — according to Time, in 1957 only one in 15 women were using dyes. Just 11 years later that number changed to one in two, prompting DMVs to stop listing "hair color" on licenses!
5. Revlon: Fire & Ice Campaign
Revlon's Fire & Ice campaign was revolutionary because it was one of the first print ads that tied makeup to sexuality — and even better, it narrowed in on the idea that it's fun to be sexy for yourself, and not just your husband or beau.
It took that same lipstick that wives took to church with them in their purses, and linked it to women that seldom stayed well behaved. According to Madeleine Marsh, author of Compacts and Cosmetics: Beauty from Victorian Times to the Present Day, it was to bring about images of "Park Avenue whores — elegant but with the sexual thing underneath."
The copy read, "What is the American girl made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice? Not since the days of the Gibson Girl! There's a new American beauty...she's tease and temptress, siren and gamin, dynamic and demure." The idea was that women had multitudes to them, where they were both hot and cold, passionate and cool. "Men find her slightly, delightfully baffling. Sometimes a little maddening. Yet they admit she's easily the most exciting woman in all the world!"
The ad featured It Girl and model Dorian Leigh, done up in a slinky silver number and wrapped glamorously in a red cape. Her lips and nails were scarlet, and she looked like she glinted and smoldered all at the same time. She was Fire and Ice — and so were, apparently, the women staring at the ad.
On the opposite page of the photo was a quiz that was meant to split women into two categories — naughty or nice. Questions were put forth like, "would you streak your hair with platinum without consulting your husband," "do you ever wish on a new moon," and "do you close your eyes when you're kissed." As Revlon executives explained, the aim of the ad was to show "There's a little bit of bad in every good woman," and lipstick would help you unleash that.
"The questions were calculated to make every woman who read them want to answer yes, because doing so would make her feel sexy, adventurous, and just a wee bit dangerous," Nancy MacDonell Smith, author of The True Story of the Little Black Dress and Nine Other Fashion Favorites, shared in her book. Women loved it, and the color quickly became Revlon's top shade — and still sells steadily today!
What made this ad truly revolutionary (and why it struck such a chord with women,) was how it single-mindedly focused on the woman wearing the lipstick. "There was no man in sight, and no romance was alluded to. Instead, the ad suggested that applying lipstick was something a woman did for her own pleasure and gratification," MacDonell Smith explained.
6. Revlon: "Color Of The Season"
Prior to the Second World War, women tended to use up an entire lipstick tube or bottle of nail polish before going to the department store and getting a new one. That, as you could imagine, didn't exactly rake in the revenues for beauty brands, so Charles Revson of Revlon thought of a plan. What if makeup updated its trends per season, just like haute couture houses? Would women go buy the spring's newest colors or fall's darkest shades?
"Revlon introduced new colors of lipstick and nail polish each fall and spring fashion season, developing elaborate campaigns around original and enticing color names," Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture, wrote in her book. "These proved so popular that women named their bowling teams the 'Fatal Apples' and the 'Pink Lightnings.'"
Revlon introduced planned obsolescence to the beauty industry, where it was to be expected that a color would go out of style after a couple of months and a new one would be needed to take its place. He promoted the idea of collecting polishes and crowding makeup cabinets with options, completely changing the way women would interact with cosmetics from then on.
7. Clairol: "Black Is Beautiful"
While Clairol didn't start the "Black is beautiful" campaigns of the 1970s, it definitely jumped on the bandwagon in order to sell more products to more amounts of people. This could be both seen as positive and deeply problematic. It's positive in the fact that they were now including and representing a more diverse set of women that were ignored by the beauty world in the past, but problematic in the sense that they were co-opting the language of Black Liberation movements in order to make a profit.
Black is Beautiful actually grew out of the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and was adopted as a national platform by both the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s. With this campaign, "the Civil Rights Movement... sought to challenge not only racism but also colorism, which were consequences of European colonialism, slavery, and the prestige hierarchies that were prevalent within the black and non-black communities," Meeta Jha, the author of The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body, explained in her book. It was a movement to lift the Black self-image both inside its own community and outside of it when no one else would. Also, at that time femininity was defined by society as the absence of blackness (it was why hair relaxers and skin bleachers were pushed so heavily in the Black community) so the Black is Beautiful campaign also directly challenged the cultural power of white beauty. All this is to say that a traditionally white-centric company endorsing it had to do it in a way that would amplify the voice of the community and not just make a profit off of it.
One thing that the brand got right was its use of models. For example, in this LovingCare Clairol ad, the hair color company used Barbara Cheeseborough, the woman who graced the very first issue of Essence, as one of their models.
This move was big because Cheeseborough showed an Afrocentric beauty standard that wasn't displayed outside of black-owned brands — she wasn't mixed or leaned more towards Eurocentric standards. Instead, she had natural hair, high cheekbones, full lips, and was able to speak to a big percentage of women who were shopping for Clairol in grocery store aisles. Black was beautiful, and the mainstream market was finally reaching out and catering to women of color. Albeit in a limited and possibly problematic way.
8. L'Oreal: "Because I'm Worth It"
In 1973, the "Because I'm worth it" tagline originated inside an ad office solely out of pure, female annoyance. It was penned up by a 23-year-old art director named Ilon Specht on the L'Oreal account — the brand hired her agency so it could take Clairol down from the number one spot in the American hair color market — and she couldn't handle the staid and old fashioned ideas the men were pitching in the meeting. Specht recalled how she was sitting in a big office with the team, listening to tired ideas coming through.
"They wanted to do something with a woman sitting by a window, and the wind blowing through the curtains. You know, one of those fake places with big glamorous curtains. The woman was a complete object. I don't think she even spoke. They just didn't get it," Specht told Gladwell. She was a young woman in a business dominated by older men; men who didn't seem to be as closely in tune with the feminist movement that was happening outside on the streets as she was. She would write a line of copy with the word "woman" in it, only to have someone cross it off and write "girl" over it.
"I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, f*ck you," she explained. So the ad she made was all about the woman, front and center.
The copy read, "I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about hair. What's worth to me is the way my hair feels. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal. Because I'm worth it." Originally the ad men thought the line would justify the fact that Preference cost a whopping 10 cents more than Clairol's Nice 'n Easy, but the true success came from the closing line and how it felt empowering.
That and the way that the ad was framed. For example, Clairol's ads used male voice-overs, while L'Oreal's ad used the model's perspective. And that was just the tip. "Polykoff's commercials were 'other-directed' — they were about what the group was saying ('Does she or doesn't she?') or what a husband might think ('The closer he gets the better you look.') Specht's line was what a woman says to herself," Gladwell explained. Even in the choice of models the two campaigns were polar opposites. Clairol focused on sweater-set women that symbolized suburban moms, whereas L'Oreal wanted "silk blouse women," who were strong, independent students and career women. The ad completely changed how women saw primping.
9. Revlon: ColorStyle Line
In 1992, when Detroit-born Veronica Webb signed up to become the face of Revlon's ColorStyle line, the announcement made waves. "So what's so different about another model getting an exclusive contract with a huge cosmetics company? Christy has Maybelline, Cindy and Claudia have Revlon, Paulina has Estee Lauder and Vendela has Elizabeth Arden," The Baltimore Sun asked in 1992. "Veronica Webb is the first black model to join the club." She was the first woman of color to strike a multi-million dollar deal with a major beauty brand and become the face of their products.
Prior to Webb, there was a fear of putting black models on magazine covers and beauty campaigns because women — or more accurately, white women — wouldn't be able to identify with them and sales would plummet. According to Julie Bradford, author of Fashion Journalism, a fashion journalist was quoted as saying in the '90s, "When you put a model on the cover of a magazine, you're promoting cosmetics as well as clothes. And if most of your readers are white, they want to identify with that image. The black community has its own magazines." While obviously racist, the journalist also skimmed past the point of how a lack of representation in the beauty world hurts self-image. Webb explained, "This is where a lot of young women get their idea of beauty from. When you see someone that looks like you it makes women feel beautiful, and it makes women feel they belong."
And this was in the '90s, two long decades after the civil rights movement and a push towards equality. "A lot of times you get denied work, still, because you're black," Webb told The New York Times in 1994. "The generation in power grew up in a different America, a segregated America, and there's still a perception that blacks are inferior. You hear it all the time: they don't want a black girl for that cover, that catalog, that campaign. So what are you gonna do, dye your skin?" Casting Webb in the new Revlon campaign was meant to show Blackness was not an "other" or "extra" in the beauty category, but a part of it.
However, there was a catch in the campaign that ultimately made it fail: The ColorStyle line didn't include all skin tone shades, but instead was exclusively made for women of color. So in a way, it still made Blackness an "other." Webb ended up losing her contract with Revlon because their market research showed that middle-class black women (their target audience) didn't want to see themselves as different from any other woman, or any other member of the middle class. While short lived, it opened up the gates for other black models and celebrities to head campaigns and grace magazine covers, pushing the beauty industry towards a more diverse audience.
From Listerine pushing the white picket fence to L'Oreal giving makeup a feminist spin, it's interesting to note how beauty campaigns have the power to not only capture the zeitgeist of our time, but also the power to change it. It makes you wonder which ads are doing that today — and the importance of pushing for more of them.