A Skin You Love to Touch
With the questions to ask in mind, we can investigate one of the most striking advertisements of the early twentieth century. Dermatologist John Woodbury invented a soap in the 1870s. The wrapper bore his name and also his picturea rather simian image of his face cropped above the neck. The Andrew Jergens Company bought Woodburys Facial Soap in 1901 but continued to feature the doctors face on the wrapper and in advertising. Woodburys sales lagged far behind the leading facial soap. In 1910, however, the firm turned the account over to the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency. Helen Lansdowne, who headed the newly-formed Womens Editorial Department, studied the marketing problem for six months before preparing a series of advertisements focusing on Nose poreshow to reduce them through regular use of Woodburys Soap. Although this approach may seem unappealing, even distasteful, today, it innovated by discussing the concerns of the consumer rather than the qualities of the producer.
The real breakthrough for Woodburys Facial Soap, Lansdowne, and J. Walter Thompson came in 1911, with ads using the slogan A Skin You Love to Touch. The phrase appeared over gauzily romantic paintings of elegant young ladies, happily receiving the admiring attention of dashing young gentlemen. (For an example of a Woodbury soap ad, click here.) Mass circulation magazines like the Ladies Home Journal ran these ads regularly. Sales soared in the following decade. Tame as it may now seem, several historians of advertising have called the Skin You Love to Touch campaign the first to use sex appeal in modern advertising.
One way to analyze the Woodburys campaign is to ask what it says about women, beauty, and sexual appeal in American culture in the World War I era. But this question may be too broad. Woodburys advertising showed young, white women, apparently in comfortable if not luxurious circumstances. They were unmarried, if the poses of young men leaning over them are any clue. The settings showed leisure and sociability, as indicated in the figures attire. Can we say that the Woodbury campaign was designed only for women in those life situations? No, because advertising often appealed to the aspirations as much as the realities of peoples lives. But we can surmise that the women who saw the ads, paid attention to them, and then bought the soap could at least imagine themselves as the alluring objects of male attention.
These delineations of race, age, marital status, and social class are imprecise, but they suggest some of the dimensions of a social analysis of advertisements. They begin to identify the women who sought to inhabit a skin one would love to touch. What other social facts do these ads lead us to? Broadly speaking, the ads reflect urban, middle-class America. Notions of separate spheres for men and women were less pervasive and less powerful than they had been in the nineteenth century. Young women, increasingly free to live away from parental restraints and less likely to be married at an early age, would find new opportunities to meet and perhaps find romance.
Historians who stress how innovative the sexual theme in the Woodburys campaign was may exaggerate its novelty. Richard Ohmann notes that even in the 1890s, themes of physical attractiveness ranked high in magazine advertisements, especially those addressed to women. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine the Woodbury ads in mass circulation magazines a generation or even a decade earlier. Conversely, by the 1920s Woodburys advertisingwith the slogan altered to The Skin You Love to Touchmust have seemed more routine than risqué. So we can say that the campaign evidenced a moment of lessened restrictiveness about the expression of erotic desire. At the same time, however, the controlled and limited sexuality in the ads show the restraints that still prevailed. And we might also note that the advertisement, like many others before and especially since, promised that purchasing and using a commodity was the route to gratify that desire.
At the same time that Woodburys ads are documents about gender relations and sexuality in early twentieth-century America, they are also evidence of the marketing situation of American consumer goods manufacturers. As historian Kathy Peiss points out, soap and cosmetic advertising helped to shift beauty culture from small-scale production, often by women entrepreneurs, to an industry based on the sale of mass-produced commodities. Woodburys also reflected a transition from nineteenth-century advertisings emphasis on product-centered appeals to depictions of those who use the product. Probably the most successful American soap campaign prior to A Skin You Love to Touch was Procter & Gambles advertising of Ivory Soap, beginning around 1882. Ivory was Ninety-nine and 44/100 Percent Pure, it proclaimed. It floats, initially a secondary appeal, soon became Ivorys primary slogan. The soap bar itself was at the center of illustrations. Here, the physical characteristics of the productonly tenuously related to its use or its usersbore the task of selling the soap. In the Woodburys advertisements of the 1910s, the bar itself appeared only as a reminder in the lower corner of the page, a throwback to product-centered advertising of earlier decades. The promise of the ad was in the social interactions it would inspire.
Nevertheless, the presence of the soap bar suggests that advertising and marketing transitions were usually gradual and incomplete. Although advertising featuring the product and its originsoften with a picture of the factory or of the firms proprietorhad lost popularity, the Woodburys campaign retained its link to the soaps earlier identification with the cut-out image of John Woodbury. Early ads also informed readers they could request a sample of the soap by writing to the manufacturer, a common nineteenth-century marketing device used less often in the twentieth century. Yet despite these elements of continuity, in its provocative allusions to sexuality, its targeting of younger, single middle-class white women, and its prominence in new mass-circulation magazines like the Ladies Home Journal, A Skin You Love to Touch indicates some of the new conditions of advertising in Progressive Era America.
To round out our analysis of the Woodburys Soap advertisements, lets also look at the people in the advertising industry who produced them. In a male-dominated advertising industry of 90 years ago, the Woodburys campaign stood out because it was created by women. In particular, it owed its direction to Helen Lansdowne Resor,* one of the most important women in the history of American advertising. Following high school, Helen had found a position as an advertising copywriter in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Along with Stanley Resor, whose advertising forte was in planning and administration rather than copywriting, she joined one of the oldest and most prominent advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson, in 1908. In early 1911, she received a promotion to the main office in New York. There, in addition to Woodburys, she developed successful advertising campaigns for Ponds Cold Cream, Maxwell House Coffee, and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, to name a few.
Helen Lansdownes marriage to Stanley Resor, who rose to J. Walter Thompsons presidency as the agency grew to be the largest in the United States, did not end her advertising career. Nor did she abandon her commitment to womens success, particularly in the advertising business. She marched in parades for womens suffrage and consciously set out to provide opportunities for well-educated young women to advance their careers at J. Walter Thompson. These women, who formed a separate Womens Editorial Department, were exceptionally well-educated, ambitious, and independent-minded. Several of them were active in feminist causes. Helen Lansdowne Resor maintained that she and her female colleagues supplied the feminine point of view, but few, if any, lived lives that had much in common with the women they were trying to reach with their campaigns.
In Inarticulate Longings: The Ladies Home Journal, Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture, Jennifer Scanlon points out the layers of irony in the work of Resor and her contemporaries. A woman who asserted her own independence and helped others achieve it as well created a campaign that promised to make women the objects of male sexual desire. Feminists in recent decades who have turned their attention to the objectification of women in advertising may not realize that a woman created one of the prototypes of such campaigns. Nor are they likely aware that she did so in advancing the opportunities for women like her in the new consumer society. More generally, as Scanlon observes, These advertising women, in writing ads that provided a narrow definition of womens livesa definition confining women to home and marketsecured their own independence, financial and otherwise.*