The Bootleg Files: Madge the Manicurist Commercials

BOOTLEG FILES 625: Madge the Manicurist Commercials (1966-1992 series of television advertisements for Palmolive Dish Detergent).

LAST SEEN: Some of the commercials are on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Television commercials are never gathered together into a single anthology celebrating a specific product or brand.


If you were watching television in the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, there is a good chance that you were inspired to buy a bottle of Palmolive dish detergent thanks to a long-running series of commercials featuring a character known as Madge the Manicurist. Of course, those readers who came around after that era might not see the immediate connection between a dish detergent and a manicurist. However, some very clever advertising executives and one remarkably lucky actress helped make that unusual combination work.

The Palmolive brand had been around since 1898, and by 1966 the hierarchy at the Colgate-Palmolive Company was eager to reposition its Palmolive dish detergent via a new advertising campaign. Ted Bates & Co., a New York advertising agency in charge of the Colgate-Palmolive brands, decided to add some overt humor and covert social commentary to the new campaign, taking the primary focus away from the dish-cleaning effectiveness of the product and using it to play up the vanity of class-conscious women.

For this advertising campaign, a character named Madge the Manicurist was created. Madge worked at something called the Salon East Beauty Parlor – whether she owned the establishment or was just on the payroll was never entirely clear, but she was somewhat unusual for the mid-1960s because very few advertisements prominently featured working women. Madge’s client base seemed to consist entirely of middle-class white housewives whose sole focus of conversation involved the rough shape of their hands, which they blamed on their dish detergent. Apparently, these women were not married to men who could afford a dishwasher – or, for that matter, a colored cleaning lady – and while there was nothing particularly gnarly about their hands, they behaved as if they were hopeless deformed.

Madge, a wisecracker with a mildly catty sense of humor, would reel off a funny/nasty comment about the clients’ hands, but then she would come in for the hard-sell: the small bowl of green liquid used to moisturize the clients’ fingernails was actually Palmolive dish detergent. The women inevitably gasped in disbelief, but Madge kept their fingers in the bowl while assuring them, “You’re soaking in it.” There would then be a quick cutaway to someone doing dishes in a ridiculously soapy sink while a male narrator explained how Palmolive does such a smashing job in cleaning dishes and softening hands. The commercials would inevitably close with a post-script with the clients returning to gush wildly about how happy they are to use Palmolive dish detergent, which was a cue for another Madge wisecrack.

Thus, starting in 1966 and concluding in 1992, the television advertising campaign and a parallel print advertising campaign offered variations on that single set-up. Amazingly, it never grew stale, and that can be credited to the wonderfully effective performance by Jan Miner as Madge the Manicurist.

Miner had studied acting with Lee Strasberg and found a niche in radio drama in the late 1940s, starring in popular series including “Perry Mason” and “Boston Blackie.” When radio drama began to wane in the mid-1950s, she snagged work in theater and on television, but never secured a niche. When she was cast as Madge the Manicurist, Miner was 49 and was not a household name.

In her jokey delivery, Miner seemed to be channeling the Eve Arden style of line reading: a weird blend of barely concealed sarcasm covering a genuine sense of comradeship. Miner’s Madge was usually older than the women she counseled, and her status as a working woman added an extra layer of mature intelligence to her advocacy of Palmolive’s hand-friendly properties. Her shtick clicked immediately, and print advertising featuring Madge’s jokes such as “Call the police, these hands are a crime” and “I’m a manicurist, not a magician” resonated with Miner’s lovingly-harsh delivery.

Later in the series’ run, there were some variations to the formula. One 1983 advertisement had Madge doing the nails for a theater actress in her dressing room on opening night – with Madge exclaiming, “It’s closing night for these hands!” A 1988 spot had a lemon and lime from outer space landing in Madge’s kitchen to talk about Lemon-Lime Palmolive. And into the 1980s, Madge started to get African-American clients and working women in need of a fingernail touch-up.

The popularity of Madge the Manicurist extended all over the world. Colgate-Palmolive had Miner play the role in some foreign markets – she was renamed Tilly in the German-speaking European countries – while in other countries the part was assigned to local actresses. Even Benny Hill got into the act, dressing up in drag for wicked Madge spoof where a bowl of glue was mistakenly used for the dish detergent. Miner was always appreciative of the role, dubbing a long-running commercial acting gig a “present from heaven for actors.”

Still, Miner’s talent was never truly tested beyond Madge. Outside of an impressive performance as Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, in Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” and a starring role as Gertrude Stein in the Off-Broadway and cable television productions of “Gertrude Stein and a Companion,” she was relegated to minor supporting roles in films, television and repertory theater. After a tiny part in a 1994 episode of “Law & Order,” she retired. Miner died in 1998 of heart failure at the age of 73.

The commercials in the Madge the Manicurist series have never been gathered into a single home entertainment anthology, which may be a good thing because the prospect of a marathon viewing of 26 years of commercials could result in a DVD or Blu-ray that could be marketed as “Madge for Masochists.” Still, some of the better ads are on YouTube by fans who taped them on their old VHS video recorders. And taking a new look at those old commercials which will certainly please those who grew up with Madge while educating those who had no idea that a sassy manicurist was responsible for a generation of clean dishes scrubbed by women with very soft hands.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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