How Doris Day and Miss Clairol Helped Jews Join the Mainstream

Assimilation Colored Our American Experience

Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.
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Color Her American: In the mid-1950s, formerly dark-haired American Jewish women seized the opportunity to look like Doris Day.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 10, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
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Egging them on was one of their number, the Brooklyn-born Shirley Polykoff. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, she was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding when it landed the Clairol account and assigned it to her. Having lightened her locks for years, she was no stranger to the power of transformation and used that knowledge to good advantage by coming up with the slogan “Does she… or doesn’t she?” According to Malcolm Gladwell in “True Colors,” a droll and lively piece on Polykoff and other Jewish women in the advertising business, Polykoff’s winning slogan was actually midwifed by her Yiddish-speaking mother-in-law. Upon meeting Polykoff for the first time, she inquired of her son whether or not his prospective bride “painted” her hair. “Shirley Polykoff was humiliated,” Gladwell writes. “In her mind she could hear her future mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder farhbt zi nisht? Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she?”

Many advertising jingles and slogans undoubtedly grew out of the soil of domestic relations, but none had quite as powerful an impact as this one, which took the physical sting and the emotional shame out of coloring one’s hair. Later still, as Clairol continued to introduce new hair coloring products into the market, Polykoff kept pace, encouraging American women to believe that “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!”

According to Polykoff’s daughter, whose astute observations appear in Gladwell’s piece, her mother wasn’t attempting to escape her Jewish background so much as improve her life. “She wasn’t trying to pass,” related Alix Nelson Frick. “But she believed in the dream… Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde.”

In the New World, where consumer goods were enmeshed in the gears of Americanization, the process of personal transformation verged on being “nice ’n easy.”


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