Perspective: Permanent Waves

The marketing symbiosis between stars and shampoo has endured for six decades

Successful advertising is often a case of improving on a formula that someone else—like it or not, usually another brand—came up with long before you. Swap out whatever details you want, but someone had to be the trailblazer. Case in point: selling women’s shampoo—or, more specifically, paying famous women to sell women’s shampoo to ordinary women. It’s a strategy that’s delivered the goods for over 60 years now, and the 1955 and 2011 ads on these pages show its smooth, unfaltering evolution. But before weighing the heady question of whether the millionairess Leighton Meester really uses a $2 shampoo brand every day, a moment, please, for the pioneering brand that started it all: Lustre-Creme.

In the late 1940s, three major shampoo brands and their advanced formulations were fighting it out for market share. Prell (launched in 1947 by Procter & Gamble) boasted sulficants that removed oil. Breck boasted two pH balanced formulas, one for dry hair and one for oily. Then there was Lustre-Creme, a value-priced brand launched in 1945 by Colgate-Palmolive. Lustre-Creme’s first pitch was that it eliminated dandruff. Ick. What Colgate-Palmolive really needed wasn’t a formulation miracle, but a marketing one.

It found it in Hollywood. Though Lustre-Creme’s core boast was that it beautified and never dried, the brand’s legendary success owed itself to a stack of endorsement contracts with the leading ladies of the silver screen. Colgate-Palmolive’s money men must have lunched with every studio from MGM to Paramount, inking deals until its roster of “regular users” included (and this is the short list) Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Grable, Ava Gardner, Maureen O’Hara, Jane Russell, Bette Davis, Lana Turner, and, at right, Cyd Charisse. Eventually, the company claimed that “4 out of 5 top Hollywood stars” used the stuff. One ad featured 23 celebs crammed onto a page.

This endorsement blitz not only gave rise to a postwar generation of “Lustre-Creme Girls,” but  also an advertising tactic that’s durable as ever.

“These are the same ad—separated by 50 years,” says Julia Beardwood, a beauty-products marketing veteran who now runs Beardwood&Co. in New York. “It’s not about Cyd Charisse or Leighton Meester; both are of their moment. It’s more that we need to have iconic figures to inform us what beauty looks like.”

And, of course, what shampoo to buy.