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Shirley Polykoff, Hair Care Pioneer

Malcolm Gladwell: Shirley Polykoff was someone I wrote about years ago.  She was the woman who came up with the famous, one of the most famous advertising taglines in history, which was for Clairol hair coloring and it was, “Does she or doesn’t she?”, “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”, and it was the tagline that really on the strength of that advertising campaign hair color for the first time reached the mainstream of American life.  Women realized it was okay to dye their hair, basically to become blonde and that seems like a trivial thing, but once you understood Shirley Polykoff and who she was it made an extraordinary amount of broader cultural sense. 

She was the child of immigrants, of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America who was anxious as her generation were, to assimilate and that was part of a larger belief that she had- an extraordinary, liberating belief, a belief that has become a kind of foundational virtue of our society that people had the right to recreate themselves, that just because you were born with a certain kind of last name or a certain kind of nose or a certain color hair or a certain whatever you didn’t have to be stuck with it, that part of what it means to be free and what it means to live in the modern world is that you got to make choices about the self that you would present to the world and she was in the vanguard of that revolution and her- the essence of that tagline was exactly that.  What she is saying is if you want to be blonde and you’re not nobody has to know.  You can do it.  It’s fine.  Only your hairdresser can find out and by the way, we can make you blonde so convincingly that no one would even be able to guess that you dyed your hair and that is the kind of- that comes- that campaign comes at the very beginning of the rise of the women’s movement in the late 50’s, early 60’s and I think it’s inseparable from the women’s movement because what they did was take that kind of narrow insight about hair color and expand it and say and by the way, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer or a CEO or a pilot or anything else.  They kind of built on that small insight about hair color and constructed an extraordinary liberating worldview out of it that we’re still exploring the dimensions of today. 

I often think that things like social media are for example a further extension of this philosophy, the great- the internet allows you to create your- to construct the self that you choose to show the world and we take it for granted now, but 50 years ago or 60 years ago it was not obvious to people that they could do that, that they were allowed to do that, that it was okay to do that and she- once again, it was her contribution or particular genius was to start to make that argument.

Recorded December 16, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd

Connecting the dots between hair care and the American belief in reinvention, Polykoff invented one of the most famous advertising taglines in history: "Does she or doesn't she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure."

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