Legendary Women Copywriters: What You Can Learn from Helen Lansdowne Resor

by Lorraine Thompson

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This is MarketCopywriter Blog’s second post in a series on Mad Women—pioneering women copywriters.

In an earlier post, you got a glimpse of America’s early advertising industry—and the opportunities and challenges it held for ambitious women.

Today you’ll meet one of advertising’s most successful professionals, Helen Lansdowne Resor. Her accomplishments in a newly forming industry—at a time when few women held positions of power—are impressive.

But Lansdowne’s achievements are more than colorful Madison Avenue history. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised—and pleased—to find her consumer insights, unique copy style and risk-taking strategic skills as inspirational and useful today as when she developed them a century ago.

It all started with sex.

“A skin you love to touch.”

These days no one raises an eyebrow over hyper-sexualized advertising. So it’s hard to believe that such a tame tagline—the promise of alluring skin—raised a ruckus.

But it did. A hundred years ago the slogan, “A skin you love to touch,” sizzled and shocked: The very idea of positioning a product—and its female customer—as sensual was scandalous. Unheard of.

At least no one had heard of it until Helen Lansdowne Resor wrote the famous tagline for Woodbury Soap in 1911. Lansdowne, head copywriter at NYC’s J. Walter Thompson ad agency, had a prescient understanding of the day’s consumer—and of the social barriers crumbling around her.

And it turned out the copywriter also had a superb head for business: Over an eight year period, Lansdowne’s campaign increased Woodbury sales by 1,000 percent.

Mad Woman firsts

Lansdowne is widely credited with introducing sex into advertising. But that was only one of her firsts. She was also the first woman to plan and execute a national ad campaign. The first woman to present to the board of Proctor and Gamble. The first ad pro to popularize celebrity testimonials in advertising. And Lansdowne was the first industry leader to create agency initiatives supporting women, opening doors for a generation of Mad Women.

Acclaimed as the greatest copywriter of her day, Lansdowne partnered with her husband, Stanley Resor, to manage J. Walter Thompson. Together they turned JWT—once a media broker for religious publications—into the international advertising powerhouse it was, and is to this day.

And Lansdowne made her mark in an era when women had few professional opportunities or little legal representation: In 1911 it would be nine more years before women gained the right to vote.

How did she do it? How did she bend the period’s gender-bound rules and achieve so much—for herself, the ad industry and women?

For one thing, she started life with a powerful role model.

Lansdowne’s Mother Courage

In 1890, when Lansdowne was four, her mother divorced, moving Lansdowne and her eight siblings to Covington, Kentucky. The family struggled to make ends meet. Eventually Lansdowne’s mother found work as a librarian and sold insurance and real estate on the side to support her family.

Mrs. Lansdowne was determined that her daughters would grow up to be self-reliant and self-supporting. Lansdowne, the second oldest child, helped raise her younger siblings and graduated valedictorian of her high school class.

After a brief stint of clerical work at Cincinnati’s Proctor and Collierad agency, Lansdowne started writing retail copy for P&C. In 1906 she moved to another prominent advertising firm. But she was soon persuaded by Stanley Resor—then a salesman at Proctor and Collier—to return to P&C as a copywriter.

When Resor and his brother opened Cincinnati’s branch of J. Walter Thompson, they brought Lansdowne with them. Promoted three years later, Lansdowne followed the Resors to J. Walter Thompson’s New York headquarters.

JWT’s groundbreaking Women’s Editorial Department

In 1917, Lansdowne married Resor. The couple held progressive ideas about society and advertising. They frowned on agency star-systems and rigid hierarchies, preferring to make decisions by consensus.

Lansdowne and Resor were convinced that advertising’s success depended on women consumers. Reasoning that no one understood women better than women, the couple created a Women’s Editorial Department.

Lansdowne and Resor believed fervently in the redemptive power of education. When Lansdowne chose copywriters for JWT’s Women’s Editorial Department, she cherry-picked graduates from Columbia, The University of Chicago, Wellesley, Vassar, Barnard and other Seven Sister colleges. Many of the women were ardent suffragists and social activists.

Under Lansdowne’s leadership, the Women’s Editorial Department grew to exert huge creative influence and billing power. By 1918, the department was pulling in more than half of JWT’s billings.

J. Walter Thompson’s segregated workplace

The ad women’s road to success had bumps. In the eyes of men at JWT, women colleagues were professional oddities—they weren’t secretaries, but they also weren’t “ad men.” Agency policy segregated men’s and women’s workspaces and women weren’t allowed in the company dining room alongside men.

The inequity went all the way to the top: Despite Lansdowne’s achievements—she was JWT’s director in 1924 and served the agency until 1961 in similarly influential roles—she never held the title of vice-president.

Hall of Fame ad woman

In addition to Lansdowne’s spectacular success with Woodbury Soap, she also created enormously popular and lucrative campaigns for Crisco, Cutex, Yuban and Maxwell House Coffee. Lansdowne raised three children—son Stanley Rogers Resor served as US Secretary of State 1965-1971—and worked at JWT for 41 years. She died in 1964 and was posthumously inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1967.

5 copywriting takeaways from Helen Lansdowne Resor

Lansdowne’s creative output was legendary. “She had a dozen ideas to the minute,” noted JWT veteran copywriter Peggy King. Another JWT copywriter, Nancy Stephenson, recalled Lansdowne’s brilliant mind “that darted and dipped and swooped with terrifying speed and accuracy.”

Among Lansdowne’s darting, dipping and swooping insights that are as timely today as yesterday:

  1. Know your product. To create a brand story, you need a deep, nuanced understanding of your product and your customers’ relationship to it. In 1910, demographic and social trends reshaped consumer demands. Among immigrants, there was tremendous angst over perceptions of cleanliness and dirtiness. Lansdowne helped consumers overcome anxieties by repositioning Woodbury as a skin-care product. Her campaigns were successful on two fronts: with middle class women attracted to the idea of luxury and self-care—and with aspirational customers eager to join America’s middle class.
  2. Get inside your customer’s head. Today we see nothing revolutionary about “A skin you love to touch.” But Lansdowne’s ads subtly introduced a radical idea: feminine adventurousness and independence. Lansdowne’s ads were among the first to picture men and women together—powerfully illustrating a societal phenomenon of the day: the breakdown of segregated male and female social spheres. Lansdowne and Resor were deeply committed to consumer research. They sent JWT copywriters and illustrators into the field for hands-on experience selling door-to-door and behind store counters. All JWT creatives were expected to have a visceral feel for consumers’ needs, desires and pain points.
  3. Hook readers with editorial content. Lansdowne ads are a lesson to today’s content marketers. She broke ground in use of editorial-style ads that imitated the graphic look, layout and copy of Curtis magazines—publishers of Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post, journals in which her ads appeared. This signature, content-rich style avoided hard-sell tactics, instead painting aspirational mental pictures and providing content relevant to readers.
  4. Make content useful. “Advertising, after all, is educational work, mass education,” noted Stanley Resor. Lansdowne surely agreed. She wrote content aimed to inspire and support her customers with practical information and tips they could put to immediate use. Lansdowne’s Woodbury copy simplifies the science of skin care. “As the old skin dies, new skin forms in its place. This is your opportunity. By using the proper treatment you can keep this new skin so active that it cannot help taking on the greater loveliness you have longed for.” Using a friendly, conversational voice, Lansdowne’s copy walks readers step-by-step through Woodbury skin care, explaining how to lather the soap “always with an upward and outward motion,” then rinse with warm and cold water.
  5. Use beautiful images to tap emotions. Lansdowne understood the power of beautiful images to tap emotions and trigger the desire to emulate. She hired acclaimed artists such as painter Alonzo Kimball and photographer Edward Steichen to illustrate her ads. Her campaigns were always esthetically pleasing. Though packed with long copy, the ads also managed to be airy, uncluttered and inviting to the eye. After riveting readers with a gorgeous image into which they could project themselves, Lansdowne’s centered headline hooked their attention and pulled them into appealing body copy.

Is Helen Lansdowne Resor relevant today?

What do you think of Lansdowne’s life and work? Can you apply any of her 100-year old insights into your copywriting and marketing? Please respond in comments.

And learn more about this pioneering ad women with the following resources:

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Lessons from Mad Women: What Golden Age Ad Women Can Teach You About Copywriting | MarketCopywriter Blog
June 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm

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Lindsey Donner May 1, 2012 at 12:48 pm

“Lansdowne and Resor were convinced that advertising’s success depended on women consumers.” –> Incredible that this insight dates that far back in agency history — and yet you see agencies today running incredibly offensive and off-key campaigns that offend their largely female buyers. I wonder if this book’s being read by any ad men?

And: ” A skin you love to touch.” Beautiful. This sounds as fresh, subtle and yet provocative to me as if it were written yesterday.

Lorraine Thompson May 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm

@Lindsey: I agree. You have to wonder what today’s Mad Men are thinking, if they’re thinking at all about targeting any consumers other than 18-30 year old males.

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