THE FIRST 100 YEARS OF JWT & UNILEVER 1902-2002: Girl Power

The copywriter turned godmother of feminism Fay Weldon reflects on some of JWT's early advertising for Unilever and how it contributed to the surge of feminism in the 70s.

If I never worked at JWT it wasn't for lack of trying. Year after year I sat the aptitude test for copywriters and every year I failed.

It was the mirror images that did it. If you couldn't draw a complex curvy line in reverse, as it would appear in a mirror, you failed the test. I failed. I practiced, and failed again.

By the time I gave up - the late 60s - I was already something of note at O&M, a copy group head in charge of the Little Lion egg account, first generation IBM computers, and goodness knows what else, but all that cut no ice with JWT. Bad at mirror imaging. What other intellectual flaws might that not imply? JWT, then as now, was inordinately grand in the advertising world. It could afford to be choosy, and so it was. In vain, we aspirants to copywriting glory banged our little fists upon its noble door in Berkeley Square.

There was good reason for JWT's reputation. JWT had that giant of an account, Unilever - and had done so since the beginning of the century, when the initial product was Pond's Extract, with the headline: "When a woman suffers." Ten years later, Pond's Extract had become Pond's Vanishing Cream, beauty rather than health centred.

The copy was page long and headed: "What a man looks for in a girl." The soundbite had not been invented, the world was hungry for knowledge and the plethora of words worked.

These days we are sated by information: the trick can only be to catch the attention, and no doubt pics do it best. In 1910, the one pretty girl surrounded by six fascinated men took up 25 per cent of the page: today it would be 85 per cent. But what gravitas that lumpen body of text had: how persuasive it was! And then there was Lux - its distinctive dark blue, red and white package now in the Packaging Hall of Fame. Lux, the beauty treatment for hands. "No more dish wash hands." Make sure he loves you. Make sure, once he's caught, he doesn't escape.

By the 30s and the depression, JWT was confident enough to offer threats not promises. What happens if you don't use Pond's Cleansing Cream! "Kisses don't come to women with any of these five defects!" And for those who didn't use Lux toilet soap, the horror of oily, coarse-pored "cosmetic skin" awaited: what man would care to come close? "After 25 it's harder to catch a man." Let alone if you neglect to wash out your undies every day in the new improved Lux flakes. "She never omits her Daily Bath - yet she wears her underthings a second day - avoid offending." The great unwashed briskly turned into the washed. Good straight-down-the-line stuff in a society in which women had to marry or live in penury all their lives.

Wages would stretch to a bar of soap or a box of Lux but not to paying the rent for anything more than a hovel. But in the ads now, as an optional extra, was the stuff of dreams - not just the Hollywood stars, but those glamorous titled ladies seen at the London theatre - all endorsing Ponds. Here was something that the humble could share with the great.

By the 50s, the marriage rate had risen to 90 per cent, and advertising, as ever both reflecting and reinforcing current trends, turned its attention to domestic life. JWT launched itself head first into the new mood. Washing machines were here. Rinso became Persil. Mother-love became the rage.

Show you care with Persil. Persil washes whiter and it shows. Both threat and promise in one. Is yours the child with the whiter shirt? My Lord, it was a worry, not just in the suburban gardens, either, but in the streets outside the back-to-backs, wherever the children played. Class barriers began to crumble. Everyone needed Persil, however much or little the housekeeping money. And wifely love mattered, too. Do your best to be like Oxo's Katie - pretty, dainty, post-war, post-austerity - and welcome your husband home with a nice pot roast.

Odd how moving those early ads are, both in the press and, from the beginning of the 60s, on TV. They show an age without cynicism, without haste. Mother and wifely love triumphant and unquestioned: the appreciation of a family all-important. (Mothers were not yet out to work in number.) And yet, the very insistence in the ads that women hardly existed in their own right - but were there to serve children and husband, and let that be enough for them - no doubt contributed to the surge of feminism in the 70s and the profound changes in our society we've seen since then.

Meanwhile, we working girls, and later working wives and mothers, and later still singletons, and working partnered-but-unchilded women (the birth rate in the monied classes falls and falls) continued to do JWT's bidding. Washed our hair with Sunsilk, later Timotei, drank Brooke Bond tea, fell upon Persil tablets, protested at Oxo Katie's reborn half-grown family but also wept with her when it finally closed up shop, and these days found our own new dismissive view of men only too well reflected in the ads. Clever old her, stupid old him, when it comes to the products of our brave new world.

I still wish I'd done better at mirror imaging. I am convinced that JWT would have let me go ahead with the slogan which would have changed our drinking habits: "Vodka Makes You Drunker Quicker." Or allowed me to stop beating about the bush and call Dior's new perfume "Yes". But clients have their dignity. It always seemed to me that they worried too much about what their wives would think about their sales.

I'm sure all that's changed. No-one these days, surely, would say as a matter of course: "Let's get down on all fours and look at it from the client's point of view." Certainly not at JWT. Never, ever, at JWT.

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