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MORE LIKE MIKE, AND BILL MOST EXPERTS AGREE THAT PROGRESS ON TV CONTINUES DESPITE COMPLAINTS THAT CELEBRITIES OR SPORTS FIGURES AREN'T TARGETING BLACKS

By Published on .

In 1963, black faces were as common in TV advertising as black people were in the front of the bus.

Into that atmosphere, Lever Bros. introduced a commercial for Wisk detergent on network TV that was nothing short of groundbreaking: It showed an African-American boy playing with a white boy.

At the time, and for some years to come, other marketers dismissed the use of blacks in TV commercials for fear of turning off the mainstream audience, namely white consumers. If blacks were used at all in TV spots, they were merely faces in a crowd or portrayed in stereotypical, subservient roles. Their usage later seemed restricted to celebrities and athletes.

But today, African-Americans are prevalent in TV advertising in numerous diverse categories. While some in the ad agency community-particualrly leaders of black-owned agencies-feel there's still too much emphasis on black celebrities, such as the two decades worth of TV-ad work by comedian Bill Cosby, there's no denying progress has been made.

Turn on the TV at any time:

An African-American woman leads a pack of other women (of various races) in pursuit of the "cookie man" for Nabisco's SnackWell's.

A black mom sits on a swing talking about Burger King.

A group of black rappers sings Christmas carols in a racially integrated holiday spot for J.C. Penney Co.

A black spokesman demonstrates a tire's ability to repel water for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Today, TV spots that feature African-Americans often attempt to reach the mainstream market as well as black people. In many cases, the fact that the actors are black is almost immaterial. Hallmark's "100th birthday" spot, for example, portrays a family that happens to be black, but it could be mirroring the experience of any racial group (see Page 39).

Black actors appear more often because marketers finally are in tune with the growing diversity of the U.S. population. Blacks now make up 12.5% of the population-a number that will grow to 16% by 2050. Almost half the population (47%) will be non-white by 2050, up from about 26% today, U.S. Census Bureau predicts.

"We have more clients today than ever before making it clear they want diversified representation," says Doug Alligood, VP-special markets, BBDO Worldwide, New York.

But while Hispanic and Asian-American agencies and media have benefited from the increased emphasis on diversity, black-owned agencies have not. This angers leading black executives of the black-owned shops, who feel many of the TV spots that feature African-Americans are without a marketing plan to get black consumers to buy the products.

"Some companies get into the black consumer market from an affirmative action point of view, not from a consumer market point of view," says Byron Lewis, chairman-CEO of UniWorld Group, New York, an $80 million black and Hispanic shop whose clients include AT&T Corp., Burger King Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

"The difference is relevance. It is white advertising in a black face," adds Anna Morris, exec VP-chief creative officer at Burrell Communications Group, Chicago, a $78 million shop that lists Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. as clients.

She feels the use of black celebrities doesn't address the black consumer at all.

"This is how the general market uses blacks. [But] if you are a celebrity or a sports figure, you are not black anymore," she notes.

Some would argue that such work as Nike commercials featuring sports superstar Michael Jordan and black director Spike Lee do reach and relate to black consumers as well as white consumers.

Targeted efforts is what the agency leaders seek.

"Black people are not white people. We have certain social or cultural values and lifestyles," says Vince Cullers, president-CEO of the Chicago-based shop that bears his name, in urging special advertising created just for African-American consumers.

Many major advertisers do general advertising and targeted efforts.

McDonald's and Coca-Cola began targeting TV efforts to African-Ameri-cans via Burrell in 1974. P&G assigned its Crest toothpaste brand to that shop in 1983.

"Mass marketing is moribund. Segmented marketing is where it is at," says Tom Burrell, chairman-CEO and founder of Burrell.

Even longtime advertisers continue to be nervous about offending whites or blacks, and tone down creative.

"There is a tremendous sensitivity on the part of the client that we should not offend mainstream audiences," says Valerie Graves, senior VP-creative director at UniWorld. "What you see on TV is as much as the client allows to be there."

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