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Shirley Polykoff

1908 – 1998

by Tessa Fisher

“Does she ... or doesn’t she?” asked advertising copywriter Shirley Polykoff in 1955, in the first advertising campaign ever to try to sell hair dye to a mass audience. The campaign worked. The number of women in America using hair dye rose from seven percent to fifty percent within a few years, the phrase “Does she ... or doesn’t she?” became part of the American lexicon, and Shirley Polykoff was credited with having helped create the hair-dye industry.

Shirley Polykoff was born on January 18, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, the second of the three daughters of Hyman Raphael and Rose (Lieberman) Polykoff. Originally from Odessa and Kiev, respectively, the couple had married in Russia and immigrated to the United States in 1905 to avoid conscription. The son of a lumber merchant, Hyman had received some formal schooling in mathematics and literature. Rose was self-taught and could read and write Yiddish and Russian. Upon arrival in the United States, she went to night school and learned to read and write English. Hyman first worked in a lumberyard, then became a sales representative for necktie manufacturers and was successful enough to enable the family to move first from the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville to the Irish ghetto of Williamsburg and ultimately to middle-class Flatbush, Brooklyn. The girls attended Sunday school in order to learn about their Jewish heritage, but more emphasis was placed on public schooling, which would open up future opportunities. This applied particularly to Shirley.

Rose Polykoff, in her eagerness for a son, had named her second child Leo before the child’s birth. “Leo,” renamed Sheryl, later modified to Sadie, Sarah and finally Shirley (as the most American equivalent), was raised as the boy of the family. Being a boy meant becoming a fardiner, or money-earner, the ultimate achievement in a struggling immigrant family. Shirley embraced the role, taking every opportunity to dress in boy’s clothing and getting her first job at age eleven, selling women’s coats in a department store before Christmas.

In the Polykoff family, alongside the emphasis on upward mobility was the drive to become American. To Shirley Polykoff this was embodied in the advertisements in magazines showing how to do everything from cleaning one’s teeth to ordering in restaurants. At age twelve she entered a competition to create an advertisement for Campbell’s Soup. She did not win, but the letter of acknowledgment from the advertising agency awoke her to the fact that people actually earned a living by writing advertisements. Nine years later she got her first job as advertising copywriter for a women’s fashion and specialty store in Brooklyn, starting at nineteen dollars a week. Writing headlines like, “Look like you’re going to the races when you’re only racing to the grocers” and “Rhinestones, a girl’s next best friend,” she quadrupled her salary within months. She subsequently became lead fashion writer for the major department stores, Bambergers and Kresges, in New Jersey.

In 1933, while working for the Fifth Avenue furrier I.J. Fox in New York City, Shirley met George Halperin. They were married three weeks later, on May 10, 1933. A lawyer with a degree from New York University, Halperin was unusual for the times in understanding and supporting his wife’s need for her own career. Despite the logistical and emotional difficulties of juggling family and career, Polykoff continued to work after the births of their daughters Alix (b. 1938) and Laurie (b. 1944).

In 1955, at an age where most people in the creative departments of advertising agencies were considered past their prime, Shirley Polykoff got her big break. She was hired by the major advertising agency of Foote, Cone & Belding to work on their newly acquired Clairol account. The challenge was to make it respectable for anyone to dye her hair, at a time when the only women who colored their hair were models, actresses, members of the jet set, or women considered to be “fast.” The “Does she ... or doesn’t she?” campaign Polykoff created brilliantly juxtaposed this risqué headline with wholesomer-than-thou mother and child photographs. Significantly, the advertisements ran in Life, a family magazine, instead of the fashion and beauty publications. For the first time in history, Shirley Polykoff made it possible for millions of women to color their hair—and still belong to the PTA.

She continued to create memorable and effective, as well as award-winning, campaigns for Clairol, including lines like, “Is it true blondes have more fun?,” “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!,” and “The closer he gets, the better you look.” She also wrote the line “Chock Full o’ Nuts, the heavenly coffee.” In 1961 George Halperin died, and Foote, Cone & Belding raised Polykoff’s salary, making her the highest-paid employee in what was then the seventh-largest advertising agency in the world. She became a senior vice president, chairman of the creative board for the New York office and the first woman member of the board of directors. In 1967 she was named National Advertising Woman of the Year.

In 1973 she became president of her own creative advertising agency, Shirley Polykoff Advertising, Inc., with major clients like Houbigant Perfumes, Kimberly-Clark and Schering-Plough, as well as Bristol-Myers, makers of Clairol. This was also the year she was inducted into the New York Copywriters’ Hall of Fame. In 1980 she became the first living woman ever elected to the National American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame. In 1983 the National Council of Women of the United States gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award for her pioneering accomplishments in communications.

In 1984 Shirley Polykoff retired. In the course of her career she had appeared numerous times on national television and radio and given lectures on advertising and general business practices at colleges and universities throughout the country, including Princeton University, Syracuse University and the University of Chicago. She was called to Washington, D.C., by Secretary of State William P. Rogers to participate in a business convention and by President Jimmy Carter to create an advertising campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.

At a time when women’s liberation was still in its infancy, in a profession open neither to women nor to Jews, Shirley Polykoff, in becoming the fardiner her mother had dreamed of, also became an inspiration and role model for several generations of young women. She died on June 4, 1998.

Bibliography

Polykoff, Shirley. Does She ... or Doesn’t She? (1975), and Interview by author, NYC, April 6, 1996.

How to cite this page

Fisher, Tessa. "Shirley Polykoff." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/polykoff-shirley>.

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