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Jewish Mad Women

Monday, January 26, 2015| Permalink

Kerri P. Steinberg is an associate professor of art history at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. She is the author of the recently published book Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

For the last several years, American viewers have fallen under the spell of Peggy Olsen, the copywriting sensation at Sterling Cooper on AMC’s series, “Mad Men.” In the span of seven seasons, the show’s enthusiasts have watched Peggy evolve from Underdog to Wonder Woman; from ponytail innocence to lighting up and sluggin’ ‘em down with the big boys on Madison Avenue. What is it about Peggy that strikes such a fascinating chord? Aside from secretaries and some copywriters, women were a rare species in the mad world of mid-century American advertising. But this woman—Peggy—is a composite character (albeit non-Jewish) of the actual female sensations on Madison Avenue, many of whom were Jewish. If it seems that she is larger than life, it is probably because she is.

Being both Jewish and a woman in the world of Madison Avenue advertising was a double negation. Accordingly, Jews and women largely worked behind the scenes in mainstream advertising, while non-Jewish, male account executives wined and dined clients to procure and secure business. Those women who were fortunate enough to move up the professional ladder and receive a promotion from secretary to copywriter typically found themselves working on accounts deemed appropriate for women, including beauty, household, food, and beverage products. As women, they brought a different point of view. More conversational, they captured how consumers felt: “Clairol—it lets me be me,” expressed Jewish copywriter, Shirley Polykoff.

Indeed, the Jewish women of Madison Avenue knew a thing or two about trying harder; and their efforts actually moved the needle of consumption. When, in 1962, Doyle Dane Bernbach copywriter, Paula Green penned the proverbial copy for Avis Rental Cars, “We’re Number Two. We Try Harder,” she might as well have been writing her own epigraph as a Jewish female copywriter. Likewise in the '60s, Doyle Dane Bernbach copywriters Judy Protas and Julian Koenig, and chief copywriter Phyllis Robinson, were able to use their outsider status to convert the Volkswagen Beetle from Nazi anti-hero to American countercultural darling. By some accounts, this accomplishment ranks as one of the greatest triumphs of modern advertising, signaling its pull and power.

Last January, an obituary for Judy Protas, credited her for scripting the now infamous tagline for Levy’s Rye Bread in 1961, “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” Typically associated with the firm’s namesake, Bill Bernbach (who didn’t deny it), the reader is reminded of the invisibility of women, and more specifically, Jewish women on Madison Avenue during these years. Their efforts and dedication to their profession often came at great personal sacrifice. Like AMC’s Peggy Olsen, Protas remained alone, survived by her nieces and nephews. Like Peggy, Judy was married to her craft. If you are a believer that advertising colors our world and, for better or worse, moves people to action, the least we can do is pay tribute to this rare species of Jewish Mad Women, and assign to their lives the recognition and value they deserve.

Check back later this week to read more from Kerri P. Steinberg.

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