Tom Burrell on Marketing and Black 'Inferiority'

Ad Legend Outlines Past Propaganda, Sees Hope for Future Voices

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 soldiers were killed. By the end of the war four years later, 4 million slaves were freed.

The economic impact on the South was devastating. The South depended on agriculture for its well being and it depended on slaves to harvest its bounty. As the Economist stated, the South's wealth was concentrated in land and slaves. "The war destroyed that wealth."

But the southern economy, 150 years later, is now almost on par with the North.

Slavery's effect on black people, however, is still a powerful disruptive influence, according to Tom Burrell, founder of the advertising agency in Chicago bearing his name.

In his book "Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority" Mr. Burrell asserts that "one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of all time was the masterful marketing of the myth of black inferiority to justify slavery within a democracy."

Mr. Burrell admits that while "on a personal level I'm revolted, yet as a marketing man I find it to be an audacious and ingenious strategy. It's as if," he says, "the original colonial elites hired a PR agency to sell the concept that Africans were innately inferior and it was indeed completely justifiable to treat them as subhuman beasts. The last several centuries still haunt us, and hinder our advancement and achievement."

Although he says black progress is more visible today than ever before, Mr. Burrell contends that "the unwritten, audacious promotion of white superiority and black inferiority was (and still is) the most effective and successful marketing/propaganda campaign in the history of the world."

In a chapter on "Why can't we stop shopping?" Mr. Burrell notes the good news/bad news character of the U.S. black economy. The good news is that black buying power is almost $800 billion a year. "The bad news? Because of our undisciplined, indiscriminate buying habits, African-Americans are America's poorest group."

Modern advertising pounds away at all groups, but blacks are most susceptible, Mr. Burrell maintains. "The buy buy, now now sales pitches are all around. We are flooded with offers to purchase every day and every minute. Messages are in magazines, and on billboards, radio, TV, the internet, bus kiosks, T-shirts, taxi roofs, tote bags, blimps, and stuffed in envelopes with the bills for the stuff we've already bought.

"It's difficult for any American to resist the relentless marketing barrage and gain a modicum of a financial foothold. But I believe the cues to incessantly buy resonate differently with a race that had to secure the right to be treated as humans and force white businesses to treat them like any other American consumer."

During slavery, blacks had little control over their lives. Families were ripped apart, and men were stripped of their traditional duties while women were often given servant jobs in their white owners' households.

"In caricature, even after slavery ended, black men were depicted as vile, buffoonish loafers who thrived in neighborhoods filled with corruption and vice. Juxtaposed against this were images of black women happily separated from these men enjoying safety and privilege in the sanctity of calm, well-ordered, clean, and wholesome white environments," Mr. Burrell observed. And these conflicting roles bred mutual disrespect, he added.

Because their lives were so uncertain and at the same time dependent, "this seeded a sense of 'living in the now' in our psyches. In a society where rank is determined by material wealth, we are still seeking to buy lost status, only this time through mindless, unbridled consumption," Mr. Burrell said.

Humor in ads helps blacks cope with their feelings of unworthiness -- and loosens up their pocketbooks, he explained. For 45 years he said he was engaged in the field of "systematic persuasion, convincing people through mass communications to buy -- buy a product, buy a service, buy an idea. In almost all cases, the means by which people are convinced to buy rarely has anything to do with reason or logic, and humor is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of persuasive communication."

But what's needed, Mr. Burrell opined, is that "we must learn to incorporate critical thinking when dealing with ourselves, our hang-ups and habits, and when dealing with the world we live in. Then we will be better able to laugh through our problems."

As founder of the Resolution Project, a nonprofit organization to create "stop the brainwash" campaigns, Mr. Burrell sees the new media as the way out of the black inferiority cycle he describes. "With technology, we have the opportunity to institute a new communication model, elevate cultural dialogue and reward positive thinking." Using blogs and websites, the "new black brains," as he calls them, can counter negative propaganda and create new success stories.

"Branding got us into this mess. Branding can get us out. Only this time we're branding ourselves," Mr. Burrell concludes.

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