How I made history as the Tampax girl

"Advertising was quite a smart option," she says of an early career which might seem a little lightweight for someone who fronted BBC1's Heart of the Matter and now presents the Radio 3 series entitled Belief. Back in the late Fifties, it was also a much easier occupation to slide into than it is these days. As recommended by her university careers office, she applied for a vacancy as a copywriter at McCann Erickson, a big agency with offices overlooking Waterloo Bridge.

"There were six of us and we did an exam," she recalls. "I had to design three advertisements each for a brand of chocolate, a safety razor and a brand of jam. What I did was to imitate ads I'd already seen. Having submitted them rather sheepishly, I was surprised to hear them greeted with cries of delight. Advertising was clearly going to be a doddle."

In fact, it was no picnic for young Joan, partly because of "a crackpot copy director" who had been in a prisoner-of-war camp and carried on as if he were still there - this time as one of the guards.

She soon made her Great Escape and in all was employed by three agencies. She worked on the Esso account ("Put a Tiger in Your Tank"); the Wrigley's account ("Chew Wrigley's"); and the Nabisco account ("Eat Shredded Wheat"). On these projects she was more typist than creator, but for the Tampax account she actually appeared in the ads, photographed from the back while dancing in a pure white gown. The taboo surrounding menstruation in the Fifties meant that no self-respecting model would feature in the ad.

"Copywriting taught me how to be persuasive in print, how to write something very briefly, how to put colour in your prose and how to use different styles. The television commercials may have been banal but you learnt concision. You discovered how to write a script lasting 28 seconds; very often if you're reporting, you don't get longer than that for your piece to camera."

Her third agency was her last: "Advertising was full of bright people but it didn't seem to have any worthwhile purpose. It was meretricious, making people buy things they didn't have to buy." She left: her heart wasn't in it - like her face.

'Belief', by Joan Bakewell, is published by Duckworth at £12.99

Email: jonty@jonathansale.com

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