Historical Ad Object

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When nail polish was first invented in around 3000 B.C., it was used for very different purposes than it is used for today. Back then, it was used by men and women in many different societies to distinguish between social classes. Now, it is used by women predominately for fashion purposes. Nail polish started to gain popularity in the fashion industry during the late 1930’s once companies began producing and advertising colored polishes. In this essay, I plan to examine this rise to popularity by analyzing the advertisements created during this time period.

The first advertisement I chose to examine is for Graf’s Hyglo nail polish powder from The New York Times on March 21, 1915. Although this advertisement isn’t for colored nail polish, I felt that it was important to look at because it plays a role in how colored nail polish advertisements were created. At the top of the page, in large print, the advertisement reads, “Exquisite Nails” and then there is a picture of a thin female hand with well-groomed nails. Directly following the picture, the advertisement gives the name of the company and the product in large print. In much smaller print at the bottom of the page, it gives a description of what the product does and how to buy it. The description at the bottom of the advertisement and the picture of the hand make it clear that the company is targeting a female audience. By placing a female hand in the center of the advertisement instead of a man’s hand or a more ambiguous looking hand, Graf is attempting to draw attention from the women reading the paper, not the men. In the paragraph describing what the polish does, the adjectives used seem to be chosen in order to entice women into buying the product. The polish is described as a “brilliant, transparent, lasting polish, delicately perfumed, daintily tinted and absolutely waterproof”. The words delicate and dainty stand out because they are uniquely feminine. Most women aspire to be described as delicate and dainty, whereas most men would rather be described as tough and strong. I think that this is the most compelling part of the ad, as it plays on women’s desires to be feminine. If Graf put a bigger emphasis on these adjectives rather than “exquisite nails”, I think that the rhetoric appeals of the advertisement would be more successful.

Revlon was the first company to create and advertise colored nail polish. The first advertisement I found is from 1945 and is advertising four new shades of matching nail polish and lipstick. It is important to note that the advertisement was created during World War II because it alludes to the war in many ways. The background picture of the advertisement is a very elegant looking woman wearing Revlon’s products with a large fluffy white poodle by her side. The advertisement gives the names of the new shades, which are “dynamite, pink lightning, cherry coke, and rosy future”. In large print, the advertisement reads, “Colors that change the ‘outlook’ of a nation!”. The description of the product in smaller print really focuses on America and changes in the country. For example, it claims that the shades “capture the mood of the moment” and that they are “keyed so cannily to the tempo and times of American taste”. All of the shades relate to war and American patriotism in different ways. Both dynamite and pink lightning refer to the sounds of war, while cherry coke and rosy future refer to American pride. I think that Revlon chose this strategy of advertising because of how the responsibilities of women changed during the war. Women began working in positions that had previously been reserved for men. Some women even served in the Army. I think that the advertisement tries to mirror this sense of feminine strength and capability. It claims that the shades will “dramatize the innermost YOU” and that they are “pace setters”. Revlon is linking their products with American pride in order to sell their product.

The final advertisement was made in 1950 for Avon’s collection of 13 lipstick and matching nail polish shades. A close-up picture of a beautiful woman wearing nail polish and lipstick that match the rose that she is holding takes up the majority of the ad. There is also a description of the collection at the bottom, followed by an illustration of each lipstick and it’s matching nail polish. The italics used in the description are meant to draw the reader’s attention to certain phrases. The three phrases that Avon chose to italicize are, “feels so good”, “doesn’t dry your lips” and “wears beautifully”. This shows that Avon is really focusing on product quality and glamour in this ad. They also emphasize the versatility of the product by showing how the different shades would look good on different people and with different outfits.  The woman wearing the products is also a symbol of glamour because she is wearing huge diamond earrings and her makeup is done perfectly. The rose she is holding symbolizes love and classic beauty.

Looking at these three advertisements together, it is clear why the nail polish industry has been completely dominated by women. While there is nothing inherently gendered about nail polish, most companies have never tried advertising towards men. Take Graf’s Hyglo nail polish powder for example. It is clear from their advertisement that they are targeting women, yet their polished isn’t even colored.   By only targeting this female audience, they miss out on the potential market of men who would use this clear polish because they want well-groomed nails. The second advertisement by Revlon is also targeting women, but in a different way. Compared to the first ad, the second advertisement is targeting a much stronger, more independent woman. However, we must consider that a lot of men were away at war when it came out. While the men were at war, the role of women in America changed considerably. So I think it is fitting that the advertisement by Revlon targets a much more powerful and influential woman than Graf’s dainty and delicate woman. The third advertisement by Avon resembles the first advertisement in the sense that it is targeting a much more passive and submissive woman. Although the three advertisements may differ in how they try and appeal to women, they all have one thing in common. All three advertisements focus on women’s insecurities by targeting women who might be vulnerable about their appearance. These nail polish advertisements try to entice women by making them think that they must have the nail polish in order to be perceived as beautiful.

Works Cited:

  1. “Avon Brings You 13 Shades in Color-last Lipstick and Matching Nail Polish” Advertisement. 1950. Duke U. Rare Book and Manuscript Lib. Ad*Access. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
  2. “Exquisite Nails” Advertisement. The New York Times 21 Mar. 1915. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.
  3. Revlon Products Corporation. “Colors that Change the ‘Outlook’ of a Nation!” Advertisement. Sunday News. Duke U. Rare Book and Manuscript Lib. Ad*Access. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.

One thought on “Historical Ad Object

  1. I think you did a very good job at choosing ads that would prove your point that nail polish is mainly for women. Each of the advertisements you chose showed different methods of targeting women, and some of them even implied that if men were to be interested in the product, they would be weak (making the stress on the fact that nail polish was a woman’s product even more prominent). I also had never really thought of how there were no advertisements that had made it even possible for men to consider wearing nail polish because of all of these feminine stresses, but in reality there shouldn’t be anything stopping men from wearing at least clear nail polish. I definitely have begun to see males getting their nails done, but it is not very common. Overall, great job on the advertising paper.


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