African-Americans: Representations in Advertising

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Images of African-Americans in advertising were derived initially from very early product packaging, much of it European. Chocolate, for example, was traditionally shown being served to Europeans by a diminutive black servant or page like the turbaned Moor trademark of the German confectioner Sarotti.

A recurring theme in a number of soap ads involved the black person who wanted to be white or the black child whose white peers would not play with him until he washed himself white. The black character was sometimes depicted as willing to do almost anything to change his color. A classic example was an ad for Pears' soap that showed a black boy getting into a tub of water. In a second frame, after he had used Pears', the boy had a white body, although his head, which had not been immersed in the soapy water, remained black.

Pervasive stereotypes

In the U.S., African-Americans first appeared in ads during the 1870s when color lithography was first used to print trade cards. The cards varied greatly in subject matter, although sports figures and ethnic humor were the two most popular motifs. Some of the images were blatantly racist. One of the most defamatory showed abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass with his second wife, a white woman, taking a product called Sulpher Bitters to lighten her skin.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the mid-1960s, advertising using stereotypical images of African-Americans was pervasive throughout the U.S. Some of the images became American icons and are still used on products today. Blacks were made to appear subservient and ignorant as well as ugly and grotesque. And if domestic work or menial labor was involved, blacks were depicted as being best suited for the job.

Aunt Jemima is one of the best known of the stereotypical African-American ad characters. The Aunt Jemima trademark, which first appeared in 1889, was a historical development: Aunt Jemima, the first ready-made pancake mix, foreshadowed the era of convenience products; it was the first product to use a black person as a trademark; and the product's marketer was the first to promote the idea of giving a product away to attract new customers.

From the end of slavery to the period of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, ads in the U.S. continued to show blacks as Aunt Jemimas, Uncle Bens and Rastuses—individuals subservient to whites. Trade cards, ad stamps, blotters, tins and bottles commonly portrayed blacks with thick lips, bulging eyes and distorted grimaces. Many saw these images of servility as promoting a type of psychological bondage equally as detrimental as physical enslavement.

African-American consumers were targeted as a specific market segment as early as 1916, when a gas company in Rock Hill, S.C., worked with a church group and the local government to conduct a cooking school for "Negro" servants. Advertisements for their efforts led to the sale of 12 kitchen ranges by the gas company. The early recording industry discovered an important market among blacks in 1920 when Columbia Records issued "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith. And in 1922, Fuller Brush Co. hired four teachers as salespersons for the black consumer market in Tulsa.

In the 1930s, the National Negro Business League conducted a study of the income and living habits of African-Americans. The investigation, one of the first national studies of black consumers, was commissioned by Montgomery Ward & Co., Lever Brothers and Anheuser-Busch. Based on the data gathered, the researchers estimated the disposable income of black consumers at the time to be approximately $1.65 billion.

African-Americans entered the ad industry during the 1940s. The first black agency was Vomack Advertising in Inwood, N.Y. David Sullivan, New York, and Fusche, Young & Powell, Detroit, were both founded in 1943 and were primarily involved in selling products made by blacks, targeted to blacks and promoted through black media.

Because black agencies were not generally given business by mainstream advertisers, their financial stability was often at risk; Mr. Sullivan's agency, for example, closed in 1949. In the 1950s, blacks began to be hired by mainstream agencies.

Other venues for the employment and portrayal of blacks in advertising opened up in the 1940s and 1950s with the successful launch of several black-owned magazines, including Jet and Ebony. By 1967, 80 of the leading 100 national advertisers were using Ebony. The majority of the advertisements in such publications, however, were for skin lighteners and hair straighteners.

The 1960s: Era of firsts

The Civil Rights movement led to more diversity throughout the ad industry. In 1963, Lever Brothers, one of the largest TV advertisers at the time, announced that it would show more blacks in its commercials, and during this period TV spots for All detergent featured Art Linkletter talking with a black housewife about her laundry problems.

In 1963, a groundbreaking advertisement for New York Telephone Co. featured a professionally dressed, distinguished-looking black man shown anxiously entering a telephone booth. It was the first time such an ad ran in general-circulation publications.

Despite progress, problems remained. Activists and national leaders of the Civil Rights movement denounced the atrocious images of African-Americans still being promulgated in some quarters. Organizations staging boycotts included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality and People United to Save Humanity. Despite the efforts of such groups, the depictions of blacks were slow to improve.

Following the 1968 riots in Chicago and Detroit, the Kerner Commission's "Report on Civil Disorders" singled out the media as one catalyst for the unrest. The report placed particular emphasis on the ad industry and recommended that "Negro reporters and performers should appear more frequently—and at prime time—in news broadcasts, on weather shows, in documentaries and in advertisements."

Madison Avenue eventually began to respond to the changes occurring in society at large. By 1970, blacks finally be seen holding boxes of Wisk detergent and proclaiming, in an ad from Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, "No more ring around the collar." In 1972, Eastman Kodak Co. and J. Walter Thompson Co. took the groundbreaking step of using a black Santa Claus to advertise Kodak's pocket Instamatic camera in Ebony.

Another milestone was the debut on March 2, 1988, of the four-part Pepsi campaign "Chase," starring pop singer Michael Jackson, who was paid $10 million, the single largest amount ever paid for an endorsement up to that time.

During the 1990s, the Benetton Group was catapulted into the spotlight by its use of black models. The company, which had some 5,000 retail outlets in 79 countries, created a stir in Europe and the U.S. with some of the advertisements in its $65 million "United Colors" campaign.

One controversial ad showed a black woman suckling a white baby. The ad won awards in France and Italy but failed miserably in the U.S. For African-Americans, the image was too reminiscent of a time when black slave women were forced to wet-nurse their owners' babies.

Even while much progress was being made by the ad industry, various organizations and legislators were working to enhance the process. In 1982, the Ad Watch Committee of the Black Media Association in North Carolina began to monitor the industry. It also developed guidelines, now under the jurisdiction of the Better Business Bureau, outlining ways to eliminate stereotyping in ad.

During the early 1980s, U.S. Rep. Cardiss Collins of Illinois, troubled by the absence of African-Americans in commercials, introduced a bill to eliminate tax deductions for advertisers discriminating against multiethnic-owned ad agencies. In 1986, she introduced a bill to set aside at least 10% of Department of Defense ad dollars for agencies owned by people of color.

At the same time, employment of blacks in the industry remained low. While African-Americans accounted for 10.1% of the total U.S. workforce in 1992, they filled only 5.2% of all positions in the nation's advertising, marketing and public relations agencies. By June 2000, little had changed.

African-American agencies themselves, however, seemed to be on a downward trajectory. According to a 1998 list in Black Enterprise, the top three African-American agencies—Burrell, Uniworld and Don Coleman—accounted for 54% of the billings of the 20 agencies listed. Through the mid-1990s, the estimated 27 agencies owned by African-Americans were billing only about 1% of the industry total.

In 1996, $865 million was spent advertising to African-American consumers, but of that amount only $337 million, or 39%, went to African-American agencies. In addition, African-American agencies found themselves competing with larger mainstream agencies such as JWT, Saatchi & Saatchi, BBDO and Leo Burnett Co., each of which had created its own multiethnic units.

Still, by 2002, critics charged that multicultural budgets remained underfunded, especially considering the purchasing power of those groups. African-American consumers controlled more than $550 billion in purchasing power and were responsible for $2 of every $3 spent by ethnic consumers, according to Prime Access & Multicultural Marketing Resources.

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