I can't seem to understand this weird sentence I saw as the first sentence on this shampoo bottle

Picture of the bottle in question

Ordinary shampoos need not apply! [...]

There seems to be missing a part of the sentence, right? I have never seen such a sentence before, it seems so weird, I'm pretty sure something is missing. But again, I'm still learning English, so I can be totally wrong :)

Is a "to" missing?

Ordinary shampoos need not to apply!

But that seems weird as well.

I think it means the same as

You don't need to apply ordinary shampoos! (because ours is the best? - maybe?)

Is the "translation" correct? If the first sentence is right (it probably is), are there other examples of such "weird" sentences?

The question Meaning of “X need not apply”? on English Language & Usage suggests that it is used for jobs, i.e.

Pencils need not apply! Only humans can.

For a job that pencils shouldn't bother applying, because the job is only for humans.

Is it the same as in the shampoo bottle example? That the bottle is way better than the other bottles, so they don't need to bother "applying" to a "shampoo bottle competition" (or similar), because they will lose?

  • 1
    About the to, I can say that need is also a modal similar to would and .... . But I am not sure about the meaning, too ! :) Perhaps it means you must not or you should not use the ordinary ones !
    – Cardinal
    Jun 29, 2016 at 10:16
  • 1
    @stangdon Is the meaning then the same? Because shampoo bottles don't apply for a job, does it mean that that bottle is superior?
    – Rakete1111
    Jun 29, 2016 at 10:30
  • 6
    It means the advertising guys wanted to be funny.
    – Stephie
    Jun 29, 2016 at 10:31
  • 8
    Advertising slogans are often deliberately confusing; a confusing slogan does not make a claim which could be refuted in a lawsuit. My favourite two examples are "Diet Dr. Pepper tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper" -- than what? Milk? Gasoline? And then the next slogan for that product was the brain-destroying "Diet Dr. Pepper; there's nothing diet about it!" Except the name, and the fact that it is a low calorie drink marketed towards dieters. Don't expect advertising slogans to make sense or even to be grammatical. Apple's "Think different", for example, is ungrammatical. Jun 29, 2016 at 14:59
  • 2
    @AntonSherwood "Les shampooings ordinaires ne font pas le poids" which literally means "Ordinary shampoos don't make the weight". "Making the weight" being a french idiom for "Matching" something or someone.
    – zakinster
    Jul 1, 2016 at 9:05

6 Answers 6


There are two issues here.

  1. As Cardinal says, need sometimes behaves like a modal verb: 1) taking a 'bare' infinitive instead of one marked with to, 2) uninflected for 3d person singular, and 3) deployed without do support Specifically, it may be used this way in negatives and questions.

    Need he pursue this any farther?
    He need not pursue this any farther.

    But this use is not obligatory. You may also employ it normally, with a marked infinitive and do support.

    Does he need to pursue this any further?
    He doesn't need to pursue this any further.

  2. "No X need apply" is a joking adaptation of a phrase from the last era when the US was suffering from severe anti-immigrant sentiment: when jobs were posted in newspapers and on businesses they were sometimes accompanied by notices that

    No Irish need apply
    No Italians need apply

    meaning that Irish or Italians or other immigrant group should not bother applying for the job since this employer would not consider hiring them.

    The shampoo puns on the two meanings of apply to assert its superiority to "ordinary" brands.

  • 12
    In the UK, the "X need not apply" form was familiar.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 29, 2016 at 12:50
  • 9
    Huh? In the US, "X need not apply" is much more common than "No X need apply". Jun 30, 2016 at 6:42
  • @ColinFine You're quite right; indeed, Google Ngrams suggests that it was the Brits who popularized the term. (I'm sorry I can't provide a link: the url is too long to fit here.) Jun 30, 2016 at 9:47
  • @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft See this. Jun 30, 2016 at 9:50
  • 1
    @Kaz Not a subjunctive--it's a simple statement of fact--but you're quite right about the absence of inflection for number/person. That's another characteristic of modals, and I'll add this to my answer. Jun 30, 2016 at 14:10

This has nothing to do with applying shampoo to hair, nor is it inextricably linked to racism.

"X need not apply" is a fairly common way to boast. It means "our quality is so high, that alternatives shouldn't bother trying to compete". For instance, at a car show with Bugattis and McLarens, Lexus promoters need not apply because they're not in the same league.

There doesn't need to be any actual competition being applied for, and the first item doesn't actually have to be incomparably better than the second. It's just a figure of speech.

Examples found on Google:

"Since then we have been blessed with the DS, which will over-write the GameBoy entirely, and bring forth the future of portable gaming. Sony need not apply." Gamespot

"A good burger - and by 'good', I mean a really fine, high-end, luxury burger - is one of life's finest pleasures. Burger King and McDonalds need not apply here." Ron Longwell photography

  • 7
    Even in the job-application context, there are plenty of examples where it's discriminating on a trait other than race. For instance, "previous applicants need not apply", "those with criminal records need not apply", "freshmen need not apply", "slackers need not apply", etc.
    – AshleyZ
    Jun 29, 2016 at 21:57
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    @AshleyZ: nobody disputes that it has come to be used in contexts with unconnected with race. But the suggestion (which I agree with) is that it has it origins in a racist expression.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 30, 2016 at 11:59
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    @ColleenV Generally, discrimination based on nationality is considered a form of racism. You're correct that not all bigotry is racist: gender, sexual orientation and religion based bigotries are not racism (although, in some cases it is hard to separate racism from religion to the uneducated.) To my knowledge, there isn't a single word that represents "discrimination based on country but not by race." Even if it does exist, I'm sure racism covers countries as well as skin-tone/physical features.
    – corsiKa
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:32
  • 2
    @Davor No, I'm not on Tumblr. I'm on a site about the English language, and according to the OED, a race is "A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group" - I feel a country counts as a group of people who generally share a culture, history, and language. Hence, discrimination by country of origin is a form of discrimination by race. Is there a fault in this logic?
    – corsiKa
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:52
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    The phrase may have some discriminatory origins but I think it may have lost some of those negative overtones with time. Starting off with a "racially charged expression" would be a bad marketing blunder.
    – J.R.
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:52

The primary questions raised are:

Is the "translation" correct? If the first sentence is right (it probably is), are there other examples of such "weird" sentences?


Is it the same as in the shampoo bottle example? That the bottle is way better than the other bottles, so they don't need to bother "applying" to a "shampoo bottle competition" (or similar), because they will lose?

This last question is reasonably close to the actual intended meaning (as inferred from the entire shampoo bottle label context).

An important unstated premise is understanding that marketers use every word, phrase, typeface, color, etc. on labels in an attempt to improve the chances of success in the marketplace. The sentence in question is of a persuasive nature designed to increase sales by targeting the consumers both in the store (prospective purchaser) and in the shower (previous and hopefully loyal future purchaser).

Many of these answers focused on the origin of the phraseology, a question that wasn't asked and only indirectly informs an answer to the questions asked.

The statement Ordinary shampoos need not apply! communicates a number 1st level messages:

  • This shampoo is not ordinary
  • (To use the questioner's wording) This shampoo is, in fact, so extraordinary that "ordinary" shampoos wouldn't even qualify to compete in a shampoo contest in which this shampoo was competing.
  • Given the phrases common usage in job postings, however it's something akin to "Announcement regarding the open position for the role of washing this consumer's hair. The shampoo in hand is so far superior to the other potential applicants that it would be a wasted effort for them to apply and therefore of the consumer's time to consider or 'interview' them."
  • An alternate reading is as a taunt from one potential applicant to all other shampoos.

As other answers have indicated, there is an additional layer of meaning with the other relevant meanings of the word "apply" describing the process of using shampoo on one's hair. Thus the alternate sub-meaning is that this shampoo negates the need for other shampoos to be "applied" to one's hair.

It finally does all of the above while, arguably, subtly raising the question to consumer standing the store aisle reading a shampoo label whether their time is being well spent on this task in light of the fact that the shampoo in hand is so far superior to all others.

To go further down the advertising-lens analysis rabbit hole, the tone is intended to form an emotional bond with the consumer by asking them to join this shampoo in subtly mocking the pretentious or just overly complex wording of other shampoos' labels. This one will "shoot straight" and talk plainly, so therefore should be trusted.

The consumer is thus smarter by saving time in not evaluating other inferior products AND feels good about joining forces with "cool" shampoo on the aisle that is not afraid of calling out the other uncool shampoos.

  • 2
    +1 for"Announcement regarding the open position for the role of washing this consumer's hair. The shampoo in hand is so far superior to the other potential applicants that it would be a wasted effort for them to apply and therefore of the consumer's time to consider or 'interview' them.", saving me the effort of writing another answer.
    – DCShannon
    Jun 30, 2016 at 21:38
  • @DCShannon Yes, that's the gem here :-) Thanks for pointing it out.
    – Don Hatch
    Jul 1, 2016 at 22:03

The given sentence is

Ordinary shampoos need not apply!

and you suggest

Ordinary shampoos need not to apply!

These two sentences actually have very different meanings. The first means that it is not obligatory for ordinary shampoos to apply; the second means that it is obligatory for ordinary shampoos to refrain from applying.

As for what "Ordinary shampoos need not apply!" means, I'd say that it essentially means nothing. As StoneyB says, it's a pun on terminology used in job adverts or mock job adverts. Its original usage was often obnoxiously racist, though it can be used in a non-racist way: for example, you could say something like "Obama seeks new Supreme Court judge: conservatives need not apply." In the context of shampoo, it really makes no sense, though. It seems that somebody just thought, "Well, you apply shampoo to your head and 'X need not apply' is an idiom, so let's put the two together." It fails because it's trying to link to completely different meanings of "apply" that don't want to be linked.


Although we may like to think otherwise. It is a racially charged expression, commonly used in advertisments for residential leasing, employment, education, and even volunteer positions. It is exclusivist, but possibly compassonately considerate as a nice way to say "no, not yours, can't have".

Intended to target the "inferior" it adds an air of superiority to the product in this case.

It is an expression still used today. Substitute riff-raff, scrubs, noobs as necessary.

  • 1
    Excellent analysis! Taken literally, "Ordinary shampoos need not apply" doesn't quite make sense. But it evokes the attitude of a bigot's feeling of superiority to get the superiority to "rub off" onto the shampoo (rhetorically) while making a joke of it. A learner needs to know three things: the two points in StoneyB's answer, and the fact that the sentence is deliberate nonsense used for rhetorical effect.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jul 1, 2016 at 14:56

The sentence is fine.

It's a joke that makes reference to a popular song from the 1970s (Signs, by Five Man Electrical Band).

And the sign said "Long-haired freaky people need not apply"

The next sentence on the shampoo bottle, ("Get a head start every morning...") is a terrible, so very terrible, pun. Clearly the people selling your shampoo think they're funny. They are not.

  • 7
    It's almost certainly not a reference to any particular obscure 45-year-old song that happens to use this very common idiom. Jun 29, 2016 at 21:27
  • 3
    Give a single reason for anyone to believe that it's a reference to this specific instance of a well-known idiom. Jun 30, 2016 at 0:07
  • 10
    No, really. The burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim. You're the one claiming that it's a reference to this song, so it is your job to justify your claim. You're also claiming that the idiom came about because of this song. That claim is easily disproved: wikipedia gives examples of it in songs in the 1860s, more than a century earlier. Jun 30, 2016 at 1:24
  • 2
    @corsiKa - Or more than twice, since the loop doesn't appear to have an exit condition ;-)
    – J.R.
    Jun 30, 2016 at 19:58
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    @DCShannon Interesting that the song seems ubiquitous to you. I (AmE) knew the song, but I don't expect most people to know it, and I understood the song as making reference to well-known help-wanted signs in storefronts with a note that "Irish need not apply". That is, I understand that, in order to "get" the song, you have to know about those signs, and those signs were (and still are) common knowledge. The point of the song is, "They're treating hippies the way they used to treat the Irish."
    – Ben Kovitz
    Jul 1, 2016 at 14:29

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