How Postwar Beauty Cream Oil of Olay Freshened Up for a New Generation

Modernized ads target baby boomers

Headshot of Robert Klara

In 1949, most housewives would have been thrilled if their husbands brought them a bouquet of flowers. Dinah Wulff was extra lucky: One day, Graham Wulff brought home a new beauty cream—one that the ex-Unilever chemist had formulated especially for his wife. After toying around with the spelling of lanolin (a major ingredient in the concoction), Wulff also came up with a name for the cream: Oil of Olay.

The model in this ad isn’t just wearing Oil of Olay; she’s

wearing what Prince calls “the male gaze.” At the time

(and even now), Prince said, women were often posed

the way men liked to see them. “She’s young, white and

blonde—and she looks like a mannequin.” In this context,

Prince added, Oil of Olay was simply a means to achieve

the beauty standard of the time.

Today, as the workhorse of Procter and Gamble’s beauty products division, Olay is one of the top 10 cosmetics brands in the world, generating more than $4 billion in annual sales. It’s not every day that a product of the atomic age becomes a favorite of the new millennium. How did Olay manage it? One answer is that the brand changed its name, dropping the “Oil of” in 2000. But as the ads here show, Olay has also changed its definition of femininity, shifting from traditional to modern, and from passive to active. As beauty consultant Cherri Prince sums it up: “The old ad is about covering up, and the new one is about revealing.”

When this well-coiffed lady stared out from the 1970 ad at right, Oil of Olay was entering its second decade as a ground-breaking product. Despite its Pepto-Bismol pink and sweet floral aroma, Oil of Olay offered women a refreshing alternative to the gloppy emulsions that dominated postwar beauty counters. Products like Woodbury Cold Cream and Pacquins (“For dream hands, Cream your hands”) went on heavy and slick. By contrast, Oil of Olay was a light, moisturizing “beauty fluid.”

That Oil of Olay could be applied with (as the ad said) but “little effort”—just the touch of a fingertip—also spoke to prevailing conceptions of women as doe-eyed, acquiescent creatures. “This is a woman from a man’s point of view,” Prince said, “—a pampered, delicate flower, a Barbie doll with pancake makeup. It was very passive.”

It was also about to change forever.

As the 1980s dawned, a new notion of “natural beauty” began to take hold, ushered in by athlete-celebrities like Mia Hamm and by brands such as Clinique and Dove, which popularized a clean-scrubbed, no-makeup look. As a result, “boomers who were turning 40 and 50 started to change their attitudes,” Prince said.

Oil of Olay changed along with them, and the results are on view in this 2014 ad. The word “oil” is nowhere to be seen. (“There’s baggage that comes with oil,” Prince said, “so they took it out of their name completely.”) There’s also no trace of the Barbie doll lady of 1970. “What’s so great about this ad is that it shows a woman from a woman’s point of view,” Prince said. “She’s looking right into the camera, strong and confident.”

Dinah Wulff probably wouldn’t even recognize her. 

‘The old ad is about covering up, and the new one is about

revealing.’ Cherri Prince, president, The Cherri Prince Company


  Posed to regard the viewer exactly like her predecessor of 44 years ago, this model exudes a confidence the other ad lacked. “This ad is an insight to today’s woman,” Prince said, who wants to energize her skin rather than slap it with pancake makeup.

  This quote encapsulates women’s attitudinal shift since the time of the 1970 ad. If the beauty ideal was once about covering your flaws, today it’s about embracing yourself. “It’s a very baby boomer point of view,” Prince added.

  P&G reformulated Olay’s Regenerist line in 2013, adding a key ingredient called Olivem, which protects skin cells. And what is Olivem, you ask? It’s a derivative of … olive oil. OK, don’t tell anyone.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.