When White America Discovered the Black Consumer
The huge cultural shift happening today is reminiscent of another time in American history.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are likely to result in many transformative changes. One change already in the works is the decision by large consumer goods corporations to examine the racist legacies of their brands.
Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben are three brands that, because of racial stereotypes, will be eliminated. Others are sure to follow. Each of these brands has considerable equity that will be lost when their names and visual identities are changed — but this is a moment that calls for dramatic action, even in the brand world.
Discarding racially insensitive brands is, of course, not at the same level of importance as the systemic changes the current movement calls for. But, since advertising reflects popular culture, it does represent a huge cultural shift reminiscent of another time in American history — the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. That was an inflection point in brand marketing as well.
White Americans watching the upheaval surrounding protests over racial inequality in the 1960s may have failed to comprehend the legitimate growing anger and frustration of blacks over many decades. “Jim Crow” laws in the late 1800s were just another way of keeping the knee of white people on the necks of blacks. Courageous actions by such notable individuals as Rosa Parks (1955) and the Little Rock Nine (1957) set the stage for a full-blown civil rights movement in the 1960s, culminating in the 1963 March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
From the 1960s to the 1970s, a cultural earthquake was occurring as Black America emerged from subservience. A new awareness of black culture produced two powerful branding statements: “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Power.” According to The National Museum of African American History & Culture:
“The phrase ‘black is beautiful’ referred to a broad embrace of black culture and identity. It called for an appreciation of the black past as a worthy legacy, and it inspired cultural pride in contemporary black achievements.”
The cultural significance of “Black is Beautiful” cannot be overlooked: By the mid-1960s, black arts flourished through art, writing, film, theatre, music and television, penetrating previously white-dominated cultural areas. Popular cultural examples include the movies, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night,” (1967) James Brown’s hit song, “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” (1968) and breakthrough television shows, including “I Spy,” (1965) “Julia,” (1969) “The Flip Wilson Show,” (1970) “Soul Train,” (1970) and “Roots” (1977).
The Discovery of the Black Consumer
In the 1960s and 1970s, black-to-black brand marketing already existed. Media targeting black Americans included Ebony magazine, started in 1945, and Jet magazine, which began publishing in 1951. The first black-owned advertising agency in America, the Chicago-based Cullers Agency, was founded in 1956. Those efforts were essential in marketing black-oriented products to black consumers, but they were not indicative of mainstream branding.
At the time, companies advertising to white consumers either ignored the black consumer completely or utilized blacks in subservient or derogatory roles. Here is one particularly egregious example:
A 1952 ad for Van Heusen carried the headline, “4 out of 5 men want Oxfords… in these new Van Heusen styles.” The accompanying illustration showed four smiling white men in shirts and ties. The fifth man was an angry-looking black native with a naked torso, a bone in his hair, a ring through his nose and a necklace made from large teeth around his neck. A caption under the native reads, “Rumor has it that even he would gladly swap his boar’s teeth for a Van Heusen Oxford!”
As white America watched the black revolution of the 1960s unfold on television, it occurred to white consumer-oriented companies that a new target market was blossoming — the Black Consumer. There is one color consumer companies care about — green, the color of money — so these companies were anxious to find a way to appropriate black awareness and appeal to a potentially profitable demographic.
The way they went about it was in some cases admirable and, in others, patronizing. Beyond brand advertising itself, which we’ll consider in just a moment, it’s important to note one of the first uses of a black celebrity to promote a national mainstream brand. Nine years after Bill Cosby appeared on American television in “I Spy” as a black actor with equal billing to a white actor, he was chosen by General Foods as advertising spokesperson for Jell-O pudding. Some advertising pundits credit “I Spy” with creating a racial atmosphere that was conducive to showing blacks and whites together in advertising.
Despite the more recent unsavory accusations against him, Cosby was a breakthrough figure in white-dominated television and advertising. “The Cosby Show,” a sitcom which appeared from 1984 to 1992, was the #1 show on American television for five seasons. His tenure with Jell-O, which lasted from 1974 until 1999, was nothing short of remarkable.
As for brand advertising, enthusiasm for catering to the Black Consumer in the 1970s is evident through magazine and television ads from major advertisers in a broad spectrum of product categories. Here are two examples, one positive and one negative.
Coca-Cola was one of the more enlightened advertisers of the era when it came to acknowledging racial diversity. In fact, Coca-Cola employed Mary Alexander as their first African American model as early as 1955. Coca-Cola ran numerous ads in the 1970s using their slogan, “It’s the real thing,” showing black families enjoying Coke. In 1971, one of their best-known television ads, “Hilltop,” featured young people from all over the world, singing about Coke. The lyric, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” enhanced the camera’s pan of different nationalities and races, among them several black people.
McDonald’s targeted numerous ad campaigns in the 1970s to the Black Consumer. Ads showed black families enjoying burgers, fries and soft drinks. The ad copy accompanying the photos, however, often seemed patronizing as the company attempted to ingratiate itself to the Black Consumer. For example, one ad displayed the headline, “Do your dinnertimin’ at McDonalds,” with ad copy that read in part, “You can relax and get down with good food that won’t keep you waitin’. Dinnertimin’ or anytimin’, going out is easy at McDonald’s.” Another ad showed a headline with a black couple that read, “Get Down with a Cheeseburger at McDonald’s.” Accompanying copy began, “Maurice and his lady gettin’ down with some cheeseburgers. … Can you dig where they’re comin’ from?” Advertising executive Neil Drossman told The Atlantic, he saw these McDonald’s ads as “a really cynical and superficial effort to reach a black audience.”
Despite McDonald’s missteps, the Black Consumer was legitimized by white consumer companies who had been made aware of that demographic’s rising social acceptability translating into purchasing power. It was a racial and cultural revolution back then. One can only hope that today’s racial revolution influences even more important and lasting social changes.
Barry Silverstein is a retired direct marketing/brand marketing professional and the author of numerous non-fiction marketing and small business books. His books include Boomer Brands: Iconic Brands that Shaped Our Childhood, and Boomer Brand Winners & Losers: 156 Best & Worst Brands of the 50s and 60s. Learn more about him at https://www.barrysilverstein.com.