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  • Marc in Madison

Unethical Conditioning: A Bubbleheaded Approach to Shampoo Advertising 

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.


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ASSIGNMENT Find a print advertisement that worked years ago but that you feel would be unethical, or at least inappropriate, today.

  • Describe the ad, explain why you chose it and tell us why you feel it's unethical.

  • Do you think your ad was trying to create a demand in the market, respond to a demand in the market or both? Explain.

  • Is there anything that could be done to bring the ad you selected into keeping with today's ethical standards? 


Why did you choose this ad and how is it unethical?

I chose this ad because as an avid Turner Classics Movies fan, I am fascinated by the cinematic version of the 1940s and 1950s. Bogie and Bacall. Hepburn and Tracy. Cagney. Crawford. Davis. The legends were formidable. The dialogy was snappy, witty, and urgent. The plots were melodramatic and over-the-top. But the portrayal of women as skittish, scatterbrained, air heads who lived only to please a man is not as entertaining in these movies—and the same unethical portrayal of women applies to advertisements of these times. 

This campaign for Charles Antell “Formula 9 and Shampoo” embodies this woman-as-bubblehead approach. 

Published circa 1950 to 1960, this ad promotes a lanolin-based hair conditioning treatment and shampoo (Hurd, 2017). The prevailing, unethical message suggests women are so incapable of rational thought that a final-straw calamity of an uncooperative coif could drive a woman to off herself. The products are unisex, but the ad suggests women would kill themselves over bad hair, not men. This ad responded to a demand in the market of this era. Accompanied by an image of a woman with a noose around her neck, a cute, dainty bottle of poison, and a gun to her head, the ad may have been brainstormed as light-hearted, but it’s a heavy-handed snapshot of then-societal views of women as pretty, silly, empty things to behold (but not to take seriously).

Was the ad was trying to create a demand in the market, respond to a demand in the market or both?

In the fifties and sixties, sexism in advertising was a commonly accepted phenomenon and strategy (Scott, 2018). Advertisers created campaigns featuring women in domestic contexts, emphasizing their roles as wives and mothers—archetypes to which women could relate (Catalano, 2002). During a time when men were in the office and women did the cooking, cleaning, and shopping, ads like these targeted those who made purchasing decisions—the “ridiculous creatures” and “idiots” who believed that pleasing their men was their most important function (Jacobs & Edwards, 2014, p. 3; Usborne 2016, p. 3). 

Social proof in the ad (“we overheard the plaint…if my hair looks such a mess one more night, I’ll kill myself”) creates the notion that everyone shares this thought and surely the person reading the ad has heard the same phrase. Refrains like “frankly, you’re going to use something on your hair…everyone does” and “why not quit kidding yourselves” reinforce this idea of a shared consciousness and understanding.

The text implies that people notice inferior products—“girls” who use vegetable and mineral oils which cling and stay only on hair surface and men who use greasy, sticky, dust-catching "pastems." Thus, by not using Charles Antrell Formula 9 and Shampoo, the other women will not only gossip about the wife—but ridicule the husbands too. Stryker and Burke (2000) state that social roles are attached as positions in relationships, but identities are internalized expectations (as cited in Schauster & Neill, 2017). During the 1950s, men were returning to work from World War II and women were relegated to traditional roles of domesticity that diminished their sense of efficacy and of self-worth (Catalano, 2002). Thus, if a woman’s primary role is to serve the man, then his appearance is a direct reflection of her ability to care. Similarly, if a man looks bad, then his woman looks worse.

These underlying societal concepts were enough to get this advertising segment into a lather. 

How could one modernize this ad?

The entire canon of ads from the Mad Men era would make most people irate in 2020. This entire ad would have to be redesigned for a modern audience: 

• A/B test the campaign to target men and women.

• Replace the suicidal theme with woman in a variety of work environments (CEO, retail employee, professor, bus driver, chef) with lifeless-looking hair.

• Create a separate ad with a man in the same variety of settings who also has dull-looking hair. 

• Change the positioning to reflect a product that offers a quick solution for busy people who need to condition and to strengthen their hair.

• Transform the “quit kidding yourselves” wording into the consensus principle—through testimonials or positive Yelp/online reviews—and market the idea that consumers look to the actions of others when determining purchase decisions (Cialdini, 2006).

• Introduce the principle of authority with a scientific explanation of why these products work (Cialdini, 2006).

• Repeat


Catalano, C. (2002). Shaping the American woman: Feminism and advertising in the 1950s. Illinois Wesleyan University.

Cialdini, R.B. (2006). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Business.

Hurd, G. (2017, April 29). Remember the ‘good old days’ of shockingly sadistic, sexist advertising? Yahoo.’ of shocking, sadistic, sexist advertising?

Jacobs, H., & Edwards, J. (2014, May 8). 26 sexist ads of the ‘Mad Men’ era that companies wish we’d forget. Business Insider.

Schauster, E., & Neill, M. (2017, January 18). Have ethics changed? An examination of ethics in advertising and public relations agencies. [PDF]. Journal of Media Ethics32(1), 45-60,

Scott, E. (2018, January 18). Photos show sexist ads from the 50s with the gender roles reversed. Metro.

Stryker and Burke (2000) state that social roles are attached as positions in networks or in relationships, but identities are internalized expectations (as cited in Schauster & Neill, 2017). 

Usborne, S. (2016, June 25). Mad men and invisible women: How the advertising industry failed to move on. The Guardian. #MediaEthics #Communications #Ethics #AdvertisingEthics

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