From Suntanning to Sunblocking, Coppertone Remains a Summertime Essential After 58 Years

How the sticky goo developed in WWII became the balm for beachgoers

While Coppertone still sells suntan lotion, the bulk of its extensive product line focuses on sun protection.
Raquel Beauchamp

Joyce Ballantyne Brand enjoyed a long career painting everything from 1940s pinup girls to fine oils, but the image that would make her a legend was for a small suntan lotion company.

It was 1959, and Grant Advertising hired Brand to whip up something for its new client, Douglas Laboratories, which had national ambitions for a product called Coppertone. Its formula was originally developed by a WWII pilot named Benjamin Green (a pharmacist in civilian life), who sought a way to protect American GIs in the Pacific from getting sunburn. Green’s solution was red veterinary petrolatum, a sticky red goo you slathered on. After the war, Green improved his concoction by adding cocoa butter and coconut oil, and then Coppertone perfected the stuff.

The rating: A measure of how long a product will protect you from UVB rays, SPF—prominently displayed on the packaging—gave Coppertone a marketing edge. The mascot: The Coppertone Girl is still on the packaging, but a more modest rendering has replaced the rather risqué image of the nearly-nude cherub. The nozzle spray applicators have become standard these days for their ease of application, though some say laying the goo on thick offers better protection.
Raquel Beauchamp

But Coppertone lacked one thing: a compelling sales hook, which is what Brand gave them. She posed her 3-year-old daughter Cheri atop a backyard picnic table and pulled her bathing suit down to reveal the tan line. Later, Brand painted in a cocker spaniel who, drawstring in mouth, did the pulling.

The image would make Coppertone famous. Brand got a check for $2,500.

The famous Coppertone Girl of 1959 helped make the brand a summer essential, especially when postwar Americans coveted deep tans like the one sported by French film star Brigitte Bardot.
Raquel Beauchamp; Courtesy of Coppertone; Getty Images

Today, Coppertone—due in part to that famous image—remains the quintessential brand of summer, and a successful company indeed. When Bayer acquired it from Merck in 2014, analysts estimated Coppertone to be worth north of $1 billion. But Coopertone’s staying power actually has more to do with deft maneuvering than tanning because these days Coppertone isn’t really about getting a copper tone at all—it’s about protecting yourself from the sun.

In the early days, Coppertone aimed to “stimulate tanning” and “protect skin against harsh effects of sun”—but most Americans were only interested in getting brown. After the late 1970s, protection and SPF ratings would take the place of deep tans. Today, it’s pale that means healthy.
Courtesy of Coppertone

Thanks to cultural icons like Coco Chanel and, later, French actress Brigitte Bardot, Americans have long associated tanned skin with health and vigor. (The Coppertone Girl ad appeared with a “Don’t be a paleface” tagline.) So when the FDA issued a report in 1978 warning that “in the long run, suntanning is not good for the skin,” tanning’s “healthy” reputation was up for review. Instead of running, Coppertone got out in front, establishing its own Solar Research Center and promoting the SPF (sun protection factor) rating on its packaging.

“The brand had the foresight to see that there was more than just tanning involved with the sun,” said Coppertone senior brand manager Dana Valentino. “From that point forward, we focused on products that would give [consumers] the freedom to go outside and have the protection they need.”

And even though sun protection is trendier than suntanning nowadays, one thing hasn’t changed: the Coppertone Girl. Fifty-eight years after her debut, she’s still on the packaging.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.