Long before Peggy Olson fought to be a copywriter on Mad Men, women were pioneering advertisers in the new age of mass media.
It’s easy to dismiss advertising as an anti-feminist industry. For decades, it has thrived on presenting women as ornaments and sex objects without offering much opportunity for women seeking careers in the industry. Mad Men reinforces that idea. From the womanizing anti-hero Don Draper, to the struggles of Peggy Olson to ascend to copy chief, the show offers a glimpse into the way women have long been dismissed and demeaned in the industry.
But a century ago, 50 years before Olson’s heyday, the foundation of modern advertising was laid by a group of pioneering copywriters who pushed cultural boundaries and rejected antiquated standards for consumerism—and they were all women.
In the 1910s and ’20s, women were slowly making their way into the advertising industry. Some of the biggest strides took place in the J. Walter Thompson agency’s “Women’s Editorial Department,” where a copywriting team of feminists led by Helen Lansdowne Resor changed the industry.
Resor was from rural Kentucky, one of nine children raised by a single mom. She began her career as an ad writer for a local Kentucky newspaper before landing in New York. Resor’s team came from the world of journalism, the suffrage movement, and retail sales. They created some of the most influential ad campaigns of the first half of the 20th century and multiplied sales for their clients. They invented new methods of appealing to consumers, many of which are still used today.
Helen Lansdowne Resor
One major success of the Women’s Editorial Department was their digression from the typical advertising copy of the period—text that merely described what a product did without much embellishment. For example, an ad for Pond’s Vanishing Cream might explain its use (“Promotes firmness of skin texture”) alongside a drawing of the bottle. Resor’s team took a more psychological approach. They connected the products in consumers’ minds with “a special kind of feminine allure, a hint of romance, social status, ideal beauty, or all of the above,” writes Denise H. Sutton, author of Globalizing Ideal Beauty, which traces the history and influence of the Women’s Editorial Department. It’s the same approach used today by car ads that feature attractive women.
The ads by Resor and her team also disregarded Victorian ideas of femininity. “A common theme [of advertising at the time] was the call to be a modern woman,” Sutton explains, noting that “most of the depictions of women during that time showed them as housewives.” Victorian morality discouraged women from traditionally male pursuits of sports, entertainment, or work outside the home—essentially anything that wasn’t cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. The Women’s Editorial Department’s ads placed the ideal woman squarely outside that realm. An updated Pond’s Vanishing Cream ad showed a woman golfing with her sleeves rolled up. The copy reads, “The Out-of-Doors Girl can easily avoid the unpleasant effects of sun and wind on her delicate skin.” Other portrayals of women showed them playing tennis, riding bicycles, and attending upscale parties. Resor’s modern woman was no mere housewife.
Two ads Resor worked on—one for Cutex nail products and another with testimonials (another advertising innovation of the time) from two suffragists for a car brand.
She was, however, still expected to adhere to the beauty standards of the time. While the Women’s Editorial Department ads used a feminist ethos to push for broader representation for women in advertising, that push only went as far as benefitted the companies they represented. The new modern woman may be able to get out on the golf course, but only if she’s used Pond’s to ensure her “delicate skin” won’t suffer any “unpleasant effects.” A century later, many ads still use watered-down feminist ideas in the same way. The antiquated housewife is still alive and well, of course; Consider Swiffer’s ad that used Rosie the Riveter to sell mops.
Unfortunately, that trend also mandates that the “modern woman” be attractive, too. The Women’s Editorial Department churned out ads featuring physically flawless women, correctly guessing that readers’ aspirations to look like those women would lead them to buy the advertised products. Today, average-looking women are near-impossible to find in commercials. Even explicitly “feminist” ads stop short of challenging beauty standards: Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign insists that all women are beautiful, while insinuating that a woman’s self-worth is dependent on being pretty. Pantene’s “Not Sorry” commercial tells women to stop apologizing all the time—and that having shiny, Pantene-washed hair will somehow help with that.
Despite their limited progressiveness, Resor’s tactics worked. From Ponds to Crisco to Cutex, everything the Women’s Editorial Department touched seemed to turn to gold. Men at the company typically handled auto accounts like General Motors, but the Women’s Editorial Department had more earning power. By 1918, the revenue generated by the Women’s Editorial Department totaled more than $2.2 million out of a total of $3.9 million, or over half of the overall earnings at J. Walter Thompson, which was then the leading ad agency in the country.
Resor’s first successful campaign was in 1910, when she created the “A Skin You Love To Touch” ad campaign for Woodbury’s Soap. Equal parts scandalous and effective, the ads showed a man and woman in a chaste, cheek to cheek embrace, with the man’s hands caressing the woman’s bare skin. Woodbury’s sales skyrocketed. J. Walter Thompson got the account in 1910, and by 1921, the company was selling twenty times as much.
“It was a major achievement,” says author Sutton, who considers the ad the first time sex was used in advertising. “If you look at the ad now, to a modern viewer, you wouldn’t think it was so sexy. But in 1910, it was, because it showed a couple embracing…. It was a very intimate pose. It really was the first time an ad was inviting the reader to both desire and to be desired, to think of oneself as desirable and desiring.”
Today, sex is everywhere in advertising, from the aforementioned auto ads to Axe body spray commercials in which women lustfully attack the men who use it to John Stamos making double entendres about yogurt for a Dannon Super Bowl spot. Ads like these have become as ubiquitous—and as boring—as the plain, descriptive pre-Resor ads were at the turn of the century. But they’re not working. In one study, 91 percent of women said they felt that advertisers didn’t understand them.
To find real innovation in advertising today, you must look, once again, to women. O.B.’s “Hello Period” campaign, for example, aimed to prepare young women for their first menstrual cycle by sharing the experiences and feelings of their peers. Led by Christina Knight, the creative director at Swedish firm Ingo who’s also the author of Mad Women: A Herstory of Advertising, the 2005 campaign’s creators polled 12 to 17-year-olds about the preconceptions they had before their first periods, and what they learned when the time came.
“We decided to turn the brief upside down right away,” Knight says, explaining that O.B. initially asked for a rehash of a pink-and-purple, Japanese Manga-inspired series of ads that originally ran in Germany. “When we looked at it, our gut feeling was that it was extremely childish, and that it would just make young women feel embarrassed.”
Instead, the creative team opted to treat its target audience like the young women they were, addressing concerns as serious as menstrual pain and as embarrassing as having to buy pads from a cute checkout cashier. The campaign was so successful in Sweden that O.B. launched it in the U.S. and other countries shortly thereafter. A similar campaign by Kotex, titled “Generation Know,” also answers young women’s questions about menstruation without condescension or fluff; it was also created by a woman, Michele Van Der Maas of marketing agency Organic, who won several Effie awards in 2014 for creating it.
That tactic—spreading an ad campaign across an entire country or around the world—was also first used by Resor and her contemporaries. Advances in communication and transportation allowed the Women’s Editorial Department ads to carry far beyond New York City, with a wider reach than ever before. The first truly national ad campaigns were running by the 1920s, introducing a whole country of women to Resor’s “modern woman”—one who was confident, active, and hip to the next big thing.
The “modern woman” was also a feminist. The team’s push to modernize femininity wasn’t just about selling products, it was also about the ideals and goals of the writers themselves. One writer, Ruth Waldo, came from a background of social work, where she said she “felt in a rut.” What she wanted— and felt women deserved—was power, a scarce commodity in the largely female sphere of social work. Once hired by Resor, she quickly rose through the ranks and became the company’s first woman vice president by 1944.
A smart ad idea from Resor: Women need to buy two Pond’s products, not just one.
Frances Maule was a veteran of the suffrage movement and had been a journalist. She was tired of traditional advertisements and their “good old conventional angel-idiot conception of women,” and made it her mission to broaden the representations of women.
That broadening had its limits, though. The Women’s Editorial Department was a group of mostly white, well-educated, middle and upper-class workers, many of whom had earned degrees from elite colleges. They earned 15 percent more than the average female college graduate at the time. And just as ads created by men reflect a male perspective today, the ads created by the Women’s Editorial Department reflected their creators’ backgrounds. The women in the ads were always white, and usually upper-class, images to which the women thought their viewers would aspire. Maule, in her attempt to diversify women’s representation in advertising, fell short, creating just four “types” of women: the society woman, the working woman, the club woman, and the housewife. They helped create a standard of beauty—white, moneyed, flawless—that still exists today.
Few women worked outside the home in the 1910s and 1920s, even those who had attended prestigious women’s colleges like Barnard and Smith. When they did enter the workforce, they had more to prove—and more to lose—than their male coworkers. The all-female team at J. Walter Thompson encountered common barriers faced by many professional women at the time. The Women’s Editorial Department was kept separate from the rest of the male-dominated company, a practice Resor herself enforced, believing that her team had more opportunity to succeed at JWT when they weren’t being compared to men in similar positions. When they did mingle in the office, male colleagues would often mistake the female copywriters for secretaries, asking them to run errands or make coffee. The women handled the bulk of the work at J. Walter Thompson. In 1925, the company had 22 women working on 65 accounts, while 19 male copywriters handled just 18 accounts.
Resor also pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements—the early Lux soap ad is a stark contrast to the one featuring Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s.
Despite these challenges, the copywriters of the Women’s Editorial Department helped redefine advertising in the 20th century. While their influence colors nearly every ad you see today, the lives and work of these women are largely lost to history. This loss is particularly painful now, as women in the industry continue to be undervalued. In September 2014, The 3% Conference, a gathering highlighting the work of women in the industry, released statistics which showed that only 11 percent of women are creative directors—an improvement over the 3 percent statistic for which the conference was named in 2010.
“It’s especially frustrating, because you would expect the communications industry, the ad industry, to be more progressive,” Swedish creative director Knight points out. But though Knight says advertising creatives like to think of themselves as forward-thinking and liberal, they often exhibit sexist, discriminatory attitudes toward women. Both Nadja Bellan-White, senior partner and managing director at Ogilvy & Mather, and Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of agency 360i, told AdWeek that they’re often mistaken for lower-level employees at business meetings. And Salon writer Emily Alpert recently outlined her experience at New York Advertising Week, where CEOs complained that women are less willing to sacrifice family time than men. One attendee publicly scolded Alpert and referred to her as “children.” Perhaps if today’s ad executives realized how much of their art they owe to the Women’s Editorial Department, women today would get more respect. And that could lead to more advertising that speaks to women with respect, too.
Now, a century later, the popularity of “femvertising” shows that women still want broader representation in ad campaigns. Compared to the attitudes on Mad Men, feminism in today’s advertising—or the trendy version of it that corporations and ad companies use to sell their products—can feel like a revolution. But they’re really just continuing to use century-old sales tactics, without making any real changes where it counts: in the workplace.
Resor mentored dozens of women in an almost exclusively male-dominated business, certainly a feminist achievement. Some of the ads she and her team created pressed against societal boundaries for women at the time. But the Women’s Editorial Department wasn’t a group of social workers on a mission to make the world a better place for women; they were a group of advertisers. Their job was to sell products to women. Just like today, the best way to do that was to convince women that they weren’t pretty enough, clean enough, or happy enough unless they used the latest product from a Women’s Editorial Department client.
That complicated relationship between advertising and feminism endures today. Advertising itself—the messages found in its print ads and TV commercials—is almost always devised to convince women that they’re not good enough. But that doesn’t mean that the advertising industry can’t be more welcoming to women. As Resor and her team proved a century ago, women’s ideas can be just as creative and lucrative as anyone else’s. So if today’s agencies really want to jump on the hot feminism trend, they should start by hiring more women.
Related Reading: How Mad Men is a Call to Arms.
Ciara LaVelle writes about pop culture and the arts from her back porch in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ciaralavelle.