The Evolution of Targeting the Black Audience

And a Brief History of the African-American Advertising Agency

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Eugene Morris Eugene Morris
It will probably surprise most people to learn that targeting "Negroes" -- as we were once called -- actually started in 1940. An officer of the Los Angeles Urban League wrote a Business Week article titled "Advice on the Negro," which was a list of dos and don'ts for those who were seeking to do business with Black consumers. The dos included recognition of Blacks as good consumers who wanted many of the same things as their White counterparts.

In 1943, David J. Sullivan, a Negro marketing consultant, introduced the 10 rules for advertising agencies titled "Don't Do This -- If You Want To Sell Your Products to Negroes!" Sullivan outlined several situations where Black consumers took offense to racist product brand names or advertising copy.

To add credibility to Sullivan's article, Philip Salisbury, a white sales-management executive director wrote a sidebar article on why Sullivan's article was important. Salisbury estimated the effective buying power of the black consumer market at $4.8 billion, which was equal to the total income of 14 states. Salisbury said Blacks comprised a market that "no manufacturer can ignore!"

I find it interesting that 65 years later, with African-American buying power approaching $1 trillion, many marketers are still ignoring the African-American segment.

These articles were an impetus for Mr. Sullivan to start his own agency targeting Black consumers. He closed his doors in 1949.

In 1945, research was used for the first time to aid in defining Blacks as consumers. The study was initiated by the Afro-American Newspaper Group in collaboration with the Urban League. A summary of the findings definitely confirmed that Blacks were a viable market segment, but the racial attitudes of the times prevented most marketers from pursuing the opportunity.

The late 40s saw several more research studies that corroborated the viability of the Black consumer segment. During this time, Pepsi Cola, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Beech Nut gum all developed campaigns directed to Blacks. John Johnson, the dynamic founder and publisher of Ebony Magazine, was the most vocal proponent of marketing to Blacks and led the fight to convince marketers of the importance of this market segment.

The 50s saw this fight continuing. Vince Cullers opened his agency in 1956 and is credited with being the first of the modern era African-American advertising agencies. It wasn't until the 60s and early 70s that Black agencies started to gain traction and appear in greater numbers. Agencies like John Small, Zebra, Vanguard, Frank Lett, Uniworld and Burrell all appeared during this period. From this original group, only Burrell and Uniworld are still in existence today.

Most of today's successful African-American agencies were started in the late 80s and 90s, led by Carol H. Williams and Globalhue. Burrell and Uniworld still rank in the top five, followed by other well-known agencies including Fuse, Matlock, Images USA, E. Morris, R.J. Dale and Equals Three among at least 100 others.

All of these agencies are facing increased competition from general=market agencies that have successfully convinced advertisers that they can deliver the same services. Additionally, the fast growing Hispanic market is attracting the lion's share of "multicultural" marketing budgets, further threatening the viability of Black agencies.

With all these "wolves" at the door, what can Black agencies do to stave off extinction? Stay tuned for my next missive for the answer.
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