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Cover Girl Makeup: A Classic Story of Women in Advertising

Feminists were on both sides of the camera when Cybill Shepherd became a Cover Girl in 1968.

Many years ago, I wrote a chapter on the history of Cover Girl makeup for my dissertation. I was lucky to be using the Modern Advertising Collection at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), a fantastic resource that had just been assembled. Listening to people telling the stories of the campaign in the recordings the Smithsonian had done changed the course of my life.  Really.

You see, back in the day, it was unthinkable that the marketplace had anything to offer women (because Marxism had feminist theory by the throat).  And the very idea that women might be empowered through work in the cosmetics industry was blasphemy.  Indeed, feminist critics (and the popular press) just assumed that men made beauty advertising, as a thinly veiled attempt to keep women down.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Cover Girl makeup had been started by a woman named Mary Ayres, who had worked her way up from being a secretary at a major ad agency just after World War II.  As the story unfolded in the tapes I listened to while sitting in that venerable museum, I was dumbfounded to learn that teams of women had been involved in this campaign from that day forward. I found that the men had taken (or been given) most of the credit. But the women had struggled with them to try and make the commercials more inclusive (less blonde-with-blue-eyes, more people of color), as well as more realistic. And these struggles occurred alongside the push for workplace equality in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cover Girl’s heyday (and mine).  So, these women worked for their own equality, while they produced this campaign. All along, however, the campaign was intended to appeal to the ordinary American girl and, as such, had an ethos that was quite different from other cosmetics advertisers.

By 1990 when I was doing this writing, Cover Girl was the biggest selling brand among women my age, so this discovery was a big deal.  But I wasn’t really sure what to do with it.  You can kind of tell that when you read my dissertation now.  Indeed, Fresh Lipstick was, in many ways, an attempt to spin out my Cover Girl epiphany into a fully-fleshed accounting of the beauty industry in America, in feminist terms.  But, as luck would have it, I had so much material that the bulk of the Cover Girl narrative ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, seen as too duplicative of everything else I had assembled.

Yet, from my perspective, the Cover Girl story was where the whole thing started.  And, even though I now know about Helen Resor and the cosmetics advertising of the early century, as well as all the other great cosmetics campaigns done by women–and the real goals behind some of them–the Cover Girl story remains for me the best distillation of the entire phenomenon.

So, I am thrilled to announce that I was recently given the chance to go back and rewrite my Cover Girl chapter, adding new sources and stronger language, as well as bringing the campaign up to date.  The new version has just debuted in Advertising & Society Review, which is offered online by Johns Hopkins University Press’ Project Muse.  The article, which is just called “Classic Campaigns: Cover Girl Makeup,  1960-1990” appears along with images and video for each period in the brand’s history.   The issue will be available to the public for the next three months and contains other material relevant to the history of beauty.

I am so pleased, after all this time, to be able to make this wonderful story available to others.


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