When Lever
that agencies
‘desegregate ads’
By Simon Dumenco Published on June 10, 2020

This New York Central Railroad advertisement from the 1950s shows two African American porters assisting a white woman. It is typical of how people of color were shown in ads, if shown at all, when Lever was approached by civil rights groups to address the portrayal of African Americans in ads. Credit: Courtesy of ANA Educational Foundation’s Race and Ethnicity in Advertising

When Lever demanded that agencies ‘desegregate ads’

By Simon Dumenco Published on June 10, 2020

This story originally appeared in the Ad Age Digital Edition.

The conversation that many brands are having right now about social justice is a frustratingly old one.

Lever Brothers, the British-Dutch consumer-goods conglomerate, was engaged in a version of the current discourse some 57 years ago. “Desegregate Ads, TV, Lever Tells Agencies,” reads the headline of the main story on the front page of the Aug. 12, 1963, edition of Advertising Age. (Lever Brothers, born as a soapmaker in 1885, had already become Unilever upon its merger with Margarine Unie in 1930, but for decades its U.S. subsidiary held onto the Lever name.)

Some necessary context: The summer of 1963 was a turning point in American history.

Among the signal moments:

On May 4, 1963, The New York Times published a photo by Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson of a 17-year-old black civil rights demonstrator being attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Alabama. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor had ordered his cops to violently break up peaceful civil rights demonstrations that had begun earlier in the spring and came to become known as the Birmingham Campaign. Among those who had been arrested during an April crackdown on protests: Martin Luther King Jr., whose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would go on to become a foundational text of the civil rights movement.

President John F. Kennedy—as we would learn only in 2005 when a tape recording of a White House meeting was discovered and released—was outraged by the photo atop the front page of that day’s paper of record, and wondered aloud about what could be done about the brazen display of police brutality in the southern city.

“There’s no federal law we could pass to do anything about that picture in today’s Times. ... I mean, what law can you pass to do anything about police power in the community of Birmingham?” he rhetorically asked members of Americans for Democratic Action who had come to the White House. “There is nothing we can do.”

On June 11, Alabama Gov. George Wallace engaged in what became known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door”: At the entrance of the Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama, he attempted to block two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from registering for classes. Five months earlier in his inauguration speech, Wallace had declared that “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” By executive order, President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, which arrived at the scene to order Wallace to step aside and allow the students to enter (he did and they did).

Sitting at his desk in the Oval Office, President John F. Kennedy delivers a radio and television address to the nation regarding desegregation at the University of Alabama. Credit: Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston/Cecil Stoughton/White House Photographs

That same day, JFK gave a televised address to the nation in which he declared:

“Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. And when Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops. It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the street, and it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.”

On June 12, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field director of the NAACP, was assassinated in front of his home by a white supremacist.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to the crowd gathered on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Credit: Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Later that summer, on August 28, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The “Desegregate Ads” story that Ad Age published 16 days before MLK’s speech was notable for its matter-of-fact tone.

“Lever Bros., one of the country’s biggest advertisers, has asked all its agencies to come up with suggestions for more effective use of Negroes and members of other minority groups in the company’s advertising,” our reporter Maurine Christopher wrote. “The call for affirmative action in this area followed months of self analysis, during which company executives and agency officials made a thorough review of Lever’s tv programing and commercials, print ads and other vehicles used to merchandise its products.”

The Ad Age story added that “Lever, which considers it has a good record at providing job opportunities for minorities within its own company, reportedly also has queried its agencies about the minority employment records of suppliers used in all phases of its advertising. As part of its study, Lever held meetings with various civil rights groups, including the Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality and New York City’s commission on human rights. But the impetus to find ways to get ‘better general representation’ of American life into Lever advertising stemmed from the company itself.”

These Pepsi ads from the mid-1960s reflected the integrated campaign approaches that Congress on Racial Equality and Urban League pushed marketers to take. Credit: PepsiCo

Fast forward to the summer of 2020.

Last week countless brands participated in “Blackout Tuesday,” piggybacking on a viral social media gesture that involved publishing black squares to Instagram and other social media feeds to signal solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice protesters. Some brands also “paused” their advertising and activations to, as Sony put it in a statement delaying a PlayStation 5 event, “stand back and allow more important voices to be heard.”

During the civil rights era, though, Lever Brothers took a very different tack. It was convinced of its own cultural importance and ability to effect change by deploying its massive advertising budget.

Ad Age’s coverage pointedly noted the leverage Lever had given that its TV commercial budget alone—for products ranging from Dove soap to Wisk laundry detergent—was an estimated $46 million in 1962, or about $390 million in today’s dollars. Running inclusive ads is just “good business,” the company told Ad Age. Adage End Bug

Web production by Corey Holmes.