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Sex, Money and Power: The Cosmopolitan Philosophy

A materialist perspective is useful in understanding why Hearst would promote both women’s liberation and women’s continued oppression in its magazine’s text and images.

The Cosmopolitan philosophy was created in the context of the American Industrial Revolution and its legacies. At the end of the 19th century through the First World War, an American Victorian morality prescriptively limited sexual expression to the private, or domestic sphere, and deemed procreation the only moral purpose of intercourse. Rapid industrialization and the presence of women in the public sphere as both consumers and workers accelerated a shift of Euro-American middle-class values from a normative Victorian discourse. Historians John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Friedman write,

As growing numbers of working class women left the home to work in factories, offices and retail establishments, and as middle-class women entered college and pursued professional careers, the separate spheres that underlay nineteenth century sexual codes disintegrated. Simultaneously, the economy moved beyond the stage of early industrialization, in which habits of thrift, sobriety, and personal asceticism had won plaudits. Instead, the emphasis in American life was shifting towards consumption, gratification and pleasure.

Tensions between old and new continued to complicate American’s views on sex and women in the workplace throughout the early twentieth century, but by the 1960s “the nation had traveled a long way from the sexual values and practices of its nineteenth-century ancestors.” Trends towards sexual liberalism had been evident in the 1920s, but by the mid 1960s they had become conventional values of mainstream, white, middle-class culture.

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Sexual liberalism framed the lives of most Americans during the mid-twentieth century. D’Emilio and Freedman describe sexual liberalism as “an overlapping set of beliefs that detached sexual activity from the instrumental goal of procreation.” This “new” sexual system was defined by the increasing acceptance of discourses that spoke of sexual fulfillment as an important factor of a happy middle-class marriage and therefore, fair game for public discussion by advertisers. 

During the 1950s and 60s entrepreneurs began to openly use sex to sell their products. D’Emilio and Freedman argue,“the first major challenge to the marriage-oriented ethic of sexual liberalism came from entrepreneurs who extended the logic of consumer capitalism to the realm of sex.” 

Publishing executives and advertisers drew upon the erotic impulses of unmarried working Americans who were not spoken for in mainstream ideologies of early sexual liberalism. For men, Playboy became the voice of sex without marriage or monogamy, for women, it was Cosmo. However, Cosmopolitan and Playboy shared more than just a message of sexual exploration outside of relationships. Both magazines were “premised on an ethic of success, prosperity and consumption.”

Women and Advertising in Post-WWII America

Advertising companies fueled the discursive power of consumerist ideologies espoused in lifestyle magazines, and created tensions in print and in the lived experiences of young, working class and middle-class women in the post-war era. In her study of Ladies Home Journal (the best-selling women’s magazine in the United States during the 1950s) Jennifer Scanlon writes, “advertisers relied on magazines to tap into a growing national audience. Advertisements competed with and, in fact, often surpassed the editorial matter in making a connection with the reading audience.” 

For advertisers, the years following the Second World War were a period of ideal market conditions in the United States. In his study of print advertising in the United States, Richard W. Pollay writes, “the economic prosperity of the postwar years, when the war-honed productive capacity of consumer demand deferred by both depression and war, was additionally propelled by the rapidly rising numbers of births and the associated nesting consumption by citizens.” 

The appearance of consumer magazines provided a space to practice newly developed advertising strategies and encourage mass consumption among consumers. While the propagandistic styles popular among American advertisers during World War Two were still present in the 50s and 60s, “the focus of the vast majority of the 1950s’ ads (77%) was on the positive benefits to be realized from consumption.” Pollay’s study also found that the ads of the 1960s tended to shift towards “rhetorical styles that are seductive in tone or testimonial.” Often these messages defined a woman as sexual, liberated, but imperfect.

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As a result of the link between advertisements and content, feminist discourses of self-confidence and independence found in women’s magazines were limited, and often undermined by the fears and insecurities promoted in advertisements aimed at women readers. “Advertisers projected a sexual definition of the female, informing her that ‘blondes have more fun’…advising her to ‘wear a Playtex bra if you have an average figure but don’t want to look average.’” 

D’Emilio and Freedman continue, “Bombarded by such messages, one feminist essay of the period proclaimed, ‘ninety percent of the women in this country have an inferiority complex because they do not have turned-up noses…have good legs or flat stomachs, and fall within a certain age bracket.’ The reduction of women’s bodies to erotic objects had debilitating effects.” Cosmopolitan “celebrated an exaggerated femininity” that was “dependent on the ongoing purchase of consumer products advertised.”

Helen Gurley Brown 

The original Cosmo Girl, Helen Gurley Brown, was a major player in the advertising strategy shifts that occurred during the 1950s and 60s not only in her support of the advertising industry during her time as editor of Cosmo, but also as an advertising executive herself. Before reinventing Cosmopolitan and taking on the role of editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley (not yet married to David Brown) was employed at Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency. First, as a secretary to Don Belding, and then as a advertising copywriter. “At Foote, Cone & Belding,” Jennifer Scalon writes, “as in the advertising industry generally, women were most often considered too emotional to write advertising copy.” 

However, Brown proved her lived experience as a working-class woman to be an asset to her company and was known for her ability to write copy for advertisements aimed at women, especially beauty products. In an advertisement for Pan-Cake cosmetic brand Brown wrote,

Tonight you must be more beautiful than you really are…you must be beautiful, period, when your mirror has been telling you for years that the most extravagant adjective that you can ever apply to yourself is…attractive. Poof to that! Tonight you will be beautiful.

In her copy writing, Brown developed a method of commercializing sex and helped make female sexuality, most often conveyed as the desire to arouse men, a part of American print culture in the 1950s.

Brown was a strong supporter of “Stauffer System” advertising in magazines, named after the Stauffer Home Reducing weight-loss plan. The Stauffer System is a method of subversive advertising in which advertisements are disguised as general news or important information to the consumer. 

Bill Tyler, writing in Advertising Agency Magazine in 1958 noted, “We continue full admiration for the job that Helen Gurley of Foote Cone & Beliding (LA) is doing for the Stauffer System with its magazine-editorial approach.” Today, Stauffer System advertisements are required to have the word “advertisement” or “promotion” marked somewhere on the ad to inform the consumer of the unreliability of the information presented. The Stauffer System is successful, especially in women’s magazines, because although an advertisement, the information presented is portrayed as dependable and identifies consumption as a solution to some problem. 

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In the same letter, Tyler commends Brown for her advertisement headline for the same Stauffer home reducing weight-loss plan. The copy read “Live in a Beautiful Body.” Of this headline, Tyler writes, “This is probably as agreeable a promise as a reducing plan can make to a diet-weary woman. It was Helen Gurley’s.” Brown’s ads were recognized for successfully convincing women that they needed the products she described. Scanlon writes, “in a short time, Helen Gurley Brown became the most highly paid female copywriter on the West Coast.” Brown, who often spoke of her own insecurities with her looks as a young woman, used her knowledge of women’s increasing preoccupation with looks, weight and attracting husbands to create a successful advertising and publishing career.

Brown founded the Cosmo Girl philosophy on her lived experiences as a working-class woman, and saw herself as a feminine exemplar of the American Dream. In 1962, encouraged by her husband, successful movie executive David Brown, Helen Gurley Brown decided to write a book that reflected her journey from a poor, struggling childhood in Little Rock Arkansas, to a life as a high-powered advertising executive and columnist married to a wealthy man. 

She titled her book, Sex and the Single Girl. The book reached the number six spot on the New York Times best-seller list in 1962. Brown’s book, “advocated working the system rather than changing it, manipulating the rules men wrote rather than attempting to rewrite them.” 

Brown’s advice suggested that “all relationships, including sexual ones, come down to exchanges of one sort or another.” The book also invited readers (italics for emphasis) “without apology, to indulge in some of the narcissism that capitalism allows.” Because the reinvention of Cosmopolitan magazine was based on Brown’s lived experiences and her best-selling 1962 biography/self-help book Sex and The Single Girl, it is appropriate to engage Brown’s views alongside the philosophy of Cosmopolitan that she helped create.

Up Next: Helen Gurley Brown and The Reinvention of Cosmopolitan Magazine




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