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Sunday 13 September 2020

The Hite Report and the Lies About the Olivetti Typewriter Ads

Shere Hite appeared in "Olivetti Girls" ads to help her pay college fees
while at Columbia University in 1971.
Now that Shere Hite, sex educator and feminist and author of 1976’s The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, has passed away, it’s time to bury the false story about the Olivetti typewriter advertisement which allegedly propelled Hite toward the women’s movement.
The story relates to Hite being one of the models who appeared in the “Olivetti Girls” series of ads, which appeared in US newspapers from February 1972 and in magazines such as LIFE and New York in March and April that year. The ads were part of Olivetti’s drive to break into an office electric typewriter market dominated by IBM with the Olivetti Editor series and the Praxis 48. (Ironically, Hite herself used an IBM.)
More than 10 years later, in November-December 1982, a series of newspaper articles about Hite claimed that the tagline in the 1972 Olivetti ads contained the words, “The typewriter is so smart she [that is, the Olivetti Girl] doesn't have to be.” This was simply untrue, as the ads said nothing of the sort. Yet in obituaries which have appeared for Hite around the world this weekend, the false claim has been repeated ad nauseam, unchecked and unsubstantiated. A few minutes’ research would have confirmed the truth. Surprisingly, the supposed fact-checking New York Times is among the many guilty parties.
What the ads really said were words to the effect that the Olivetti Girl was someone about whom “people [are] saying terribly nice things”,  because she typed mistake-free copy as a result of using a typewriter with a “brain” – a machine which could “actually think for itself”. “She may  be prettier than other typists, but she’s not necessarily brainier.” She was “sharper, looser, never uptight” and could have fun. The typewriter eliminated common mistakes such as “flying caps”, improper spacing, “shading or ghosting” and “crowding or piling”.
Now, no matter which way one interprets these words, or thinks of them as seeming to be condescending, they do NOT state that the typist did not have to be smart. Nor is there any suggestion the models used in the ads are “leggy dumb blondes”, as so many articles would have us believe. That is purely a personal interpretation, and not the stated view of the advertiser. The whole premise of Hite’s argument for becoming a feminist fails. At best she has exaggerated what the Olivetti ads said, or worst she lied. Just because Hite said the story was true doesn’t make it true.
The false story (some versions of which stray so far from the truth as to claim the ads appeared in Playboy magazine), dates back to at least 1977. In its May 9 issue of that year, German news magazine Der Spiegel said, “Just a few years ago, Shere Hite from New York could be seen as a two-legged office machine in the canyons of Manhattan. At that time, the young woman had to play the part of a typist in a TV commercial: As ‘Olivetti Woman’ [sic] it was her job to ‘introduce a typewriter that was so smart that the user could easily appear a bit stupid’. The mimodrama was the trigger for the sex world bestseller of the 70s and made the former Columbia doctoral student a star guest on American talk shows. Because New York feminists who protested the Olivetti commercial convinced Hite that their strip was typical of the role played by many women in the United States - a silent majority of sexual objects ‘whose feelings are suppressed and exploited’. Hite began to be interested in the attitudes of her sex comrades on the subject of sexuality and sent out the first questionnaires. Four years later (and $35,000 in debt) she submitted the Hite Report - a work that summarises the statements of 3019 women on the subject of sexuality and appeared on seller lists almost overnight.”
Hite died from the rare neurological disorder corticobasal degeneration last Wednesday in North London, England, aged 77. She was born Shirley Diana Gregory in Saint Joseph, Missouri, on November 2, 1942. 


Craig said...

Your extensive knowledge of the history of typewriter advertisements (and typewriters in general) never ceases to amaze me.

Richard P said...

It's a shame that lesser reporters didn't check their facts. Well done.

That said, I can understand how Hite would misremember the exact words of the ad copy here, or would paraphrase it as she did. Some of these ads do come close to saying that the "girls" don't need brains because their typewriters have them—and finding the sexism here is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Marcin said...

As the person above mentioned, there are phrases there that are very much “The typewriter is so smart she doesn't have to be,” just said with different words. Particularly this stands out: “Now, she may be prettier than other typists, but she's not necessarily any brainier. Then what makes an Olivetti girl such a phenomenal typist? Her brainy Olivetti Electric Typewriter, of course!”

But I also believe what’s missing from your analysis is what’s unwritten, too – the decades of history of sexism in the industry, the forced smiles of the women in the picture, the young age of all of them (indicating both objectification and the lack of upward mobility), five men invading the secretary’s personal space in the original advertisement, and the entire idea of validating the woman’s value in the workforce by her typing abilities and her typing abilities alone (“but can she type?”). If the exact words aren’t spoken, the ads are dripping with the *sentiment* – and their tone, one that can seem funny and cheeky to us, privileged white men, can be downright insulting to others. Given all this context it’s entirely possible to imagine the radicalizing effect the ads could have had on Shere Hite and other women (and, hopefully, some men).

Bill M said...

I wonder how she interpreted other ads of the day as everything from cigarettes to cars to motorcycles, to all kinds of things featured young ladies to sell the products.

Even today many reporters do not do their research before publishing articles or books.

Martha Lea said...

Thanks for this information, and the high res images. Reading the ad wording, it's entirely understandable how the strapline got paraphrased over time. It may as well have actually said what Hite and others have claimed. This doesn't excuse all those who should have checked when writing her obituaries. I was certainly fooled into thinking it was a direct quote (and repeating it) simply because it was in several newspapers! I assumed the ad in question had been somehow lost. Better late than never, as they say.

Kirk said...

You're absolutely right. On one hand, perhaps it is commendable to point out fast and loose journalistic integrity. But on the other, this really smacks of "aKsHuLlY... tHe aD nEvEr sAiD tHaT!"

The inherent sexism of these ads is obvious. Even without that *specific* tagline, it's easy to envision Ms. Hite nonetheless being upset when she saw the words attached to her photo shoot. The rest of the story goes like this: there was a protest against the ad campaign, she showed up to join in, and was invited to the New York City chapter of NOW.

Again, calling out errors in pieces of journalism is fine. I hope this blogger (and I don't get that impression) doesn't mean to use this error to make the argument that the ad campaign was not sexist in itself.