The character Peggy, from Mad Men, was apparently modelled on a real life copywriter.

Shirley Polykoff.

But Shirley Polykoff didn’t have much in common with Peggy.

Polykoff was a terrific writer for a start.

Second, she was really feisty and assertive, like everyone in New York.

One of her early accounts was Clairol.

In the 1950s, having your hair died blonde marked you out as a good time girl.

You slept around.

This attitude made Shirley Polykoff angry.

Firstly, what business was it of anyone’s whether you dyed your hair or not?

Secondly, what business was it of anyone’s whether you slept around or not?

A woman should be entitled to do whatever she wanted with her body, without anyone else passing judgement.

And that was the brilliance behind the Clairol campaign she did.

To turn the image of blondes around, she would only use Doris Day types in the advertising.

Girl-next-door blondes.

The headline she ran everywhere was “DOES SHE, OR DOESN’T SHE?”

With the sub-head ‘Colour so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure’.

The brilliance was using that headline against those models.

The ‘DOES SHE, OR DOESN’T SHE?’ line was obviously a play on what everyone thought blondes were getting up to.

If it had been a picture of a Marilyn Monroe blonde you wouldn’t have had to ask.

You knew the answer was yes.

But with a picture of a fresh, wholesome blonde the answer wasn’t so obvious.


You’d have to admit, you couldn’t tell.

She looks too nice a girl to be sleeping around.

And so the image of blondes moved from being plain brassy, to being fresh and confident.


And of course, so did the hair colour.

Before Clairol, the answer to “DOES SHE, OR DOESN’T SHE?” would have been yes.

Everyone knows blondes dye their hair.

But now it said “Colour so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

Maybe she didn’t dye her hair either.

Of course the innuendo made it a very difficult campaign to buy.

Many people at the agency tried to kill it, and the clients weren’t sure it was the right image for Clairol.

Asking whether women slept around.

Everyone was ready to pull the advertising at the first sign of trouble.

Until the letters started coming into Clairol.

Women everywhere saying they felt liberated.

The client forwarded one particular letter to Shirley Polykoff.

It said “Thank you for changing my life. 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, I saw a Clairol ad in the subway. I decided to take a chance and dyed my hair blond, and that is how I am in Bermuda now on my honeymoon with Harold.” The client loved that letter.

It gave him the confidence to believe in the campaign.

He circulated it around the entire company and used it as the theme for a national sales meeting.

The doubts about the campaign disappeared.

Clairol put everything they had behind it.

And that campaign built an entire market.

Over the next decade the percentage of women colouring their hair rose from 7% to 40%.

The market grew from $25 million a year to $200 million, and Clairol had half of it.

Today, the hair colour market is over a billion dollars a year.

But the part that makes Shirley Polykoff a real genius in my book, is when she retired in 1973.

She was, by then, one of the highest paid creatives in advertising.

At her party, everyone made speeches about how her campaign had paved the way for women’s equality and feminism.

Shirley Polykoff stood and thanked everyone.

She asked them if they remembered the particular letter that had given everyone the courage to get behind the campaign.

The letter from the young woman on her honeymoon in Bermuda.

Of course everyone smiled and nodded.

They all remembered the letter that helped transform the entire market.


Shirley Polykoff said “Actually, I wrote that letter.”