Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry

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9780812220605: Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry
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Until now, most works on the history of African Americans in advertising have focused on the depiction of blacks in advertisements. As the first comprehensive examination of African American participation in the industry, Madison Avenue and the Color Line breaks new ground by examining the history of black advertising employees and agency owners.

For much of the twentieth century, even as advertisers chased African American consumer dollars, the doors to most advertising agencies were firmly closed to African American professionals. Over time, black participation in the industry resulted from the combined efforts of black media, civil rights groups, black consumers, government organizations, and black advertising and marketing professionals working outside white agencies. Blacks positioned themselves for jobs within the advertising industry, especially as experts on the black consumer market, and then used their status to alter stereotypical perceptions of black consumers. By doing so, they became part of the broader effort to build an African American professional and entrepreneurial class and to challenge the negative portrayals of blacks in American culture.

Using an extensive review of advertising trade journals, government documents, and organizational papers, as well as personal interviews and the advertisements themselves, Jason Chambers weaves individual biographies together with broader events in U.S. history to tell how blacks struggled to bring equality to the advertising industry.

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About the Author:

Jason Chambers Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

"The most difficult and bewildering thing about the white world is that it acts as if blacks were not there."—James Baldwin

In the early 1990s, Kay Lorraine, a Chicago-based advertising producer, assembled a cast and crew on location to film a commercial for a Cleveland grocery chain. She hired a multiracial cast to reflect Cleveland's diversity, but the client representative, after seeing the black actors at the taping, "had a fit and wanted them off the set." Lorraine refused. After several tense moments, he relented. "O.K.," he allowed, "they can push the shopping carts around in the back, but make sure they don't touch the food." So Lorraine filmed the commercial with the black actors in the back of the scene and not touching any of the products—quietly pretending that they were not there.

Although Lorraine's encounter with a prejudiced executive took place late in the twentieth century, it could have happened in nearly any decade and in any place in America. For much of the century, to include African Americans in a commercial, even one aired in a city with a large black population, was anathema to many executives. Indeed, many of the people who decided the advertising and marketing direction for their companies simply acted as though blacks did not exist as consumers for their products. Therefore, they often gave them no place in their advertising, unless individuals like Lorraine, black consumers, or advocacy groups pressured them to do so.

Lorraine risked losing the account when she openly confronted the representative's prejudice. Advertising is a service business. Agencies exist to meet the needs of clients and those clients have complete power over where their advertising dollars go. That Lorraine, a white woman, took this stand was due in part to the hard work of numerous African Americans in the advertising and media industries. Over the course of several decades, these men and women stood up to the negative and denigrating treatment by advertising agencies and American corporations, and their hard work helped make the black consumer market visible. As this examination of the advertising industry will show, too few others acted with Lorraine's courage to include blacks in advertisements—or as employees in advertising agencies. Yet it was only through this sort of pressure that the advertising industry ever changed at all.

The struggle of African Americans for inclusion in the advertising industry is the central concern of this book: it connects the growing visibility of African Americans in advertisements with the increasing presence and hard work of African American advertising professionals. African Americans, both inside and outside the advertising industry, viewed advertising as an employment and financial opportunity and as a mechanism to effect cultural change in both the white and black communities. They actively engaged in defining the black consumer both for potential clients and for blacks themselves. They used advertising not only to promote images of consumption but also, within the advertisements, to promote positive images of black life and culture, from family life and academic achievement to religion and community.

Scholars like Marilyn Kern-Foxworth and Anthony Cortese have examined changes in blacks' representation in advertisements, documenting the transition from negative and disparaging stereotypes, through their virtual invisibility in advertisements, to the beginnings of genuine and realistic representations. But no one has fully explored the breadth of changes in the racial makeup of the agency world responsible for those advertisements. In fact, beyond a few brief references in historical works, scholars have ignored the experiences of black professionals in the advertising industry. In doing so, they have turned existing histories of the advertising industry into a story of white men and women only, and they have created the dangerous and inaccurate impression that African Americans have not fought for inclusion in this industry. This work shows that blacks contested discrimination in advertising employment much as they did in more recognized areas like politics, law, and manufacturing. Further, existing histories imply that the industry's racial homogeneity was simply a reflection of larger society, the result of a lack of interest from blacks or the absence of talented blacks. This work documents a history of active, systemic discrimination.

It also documents the history of the pioneering African Americans who transformed the advertising industry in the face of that discrimination. It offers a broad historical examination of blacks' struggle for work in an industry that did not welcome them and examines their role as image makers for a market that that industry could not see. It shows how black advertising professionals—as sales representatives, as agency owners, and eventually as mainstream agency personnel—worked to develop corporate executives' appreciation of the black consumer market, and their advertising and marketing efforts targeting that market. Blacks' multifaceted development of this market directly led to the opportunities to advance into the advertising industry. This book thus provides a more complete picture of the history of advertising in the United States and contributes to the growing body of literature on the history of African Americans in business.

There are three major components to this book. The first examines how African American professionals in journalism, sales, and advertising changed the perceptions of black consumers among corporate executives and then used that interest as a foundation to gain wider participation in the advertising industry. Over the course of the twentieth century, African American advocates of the black consumer market gradually shifted from emphasizing the presence of black consumers to white business leaders, to stressing the pressure those consumers could create on a company or industry when they acted as a cohesive force. Second, I analyze how civil rights and government organizations used this pressure—specifically, through tactics of boycotts and selective purchasing campaigns, as well as legislation outlawing employment discrimination—to catalyze changes in the institutional culture of the advertising industry. These changes led to greater employment opportunities for blacks in mainstream agencies and as owners of independent firms. Finally, I show how black men and women, once they achieved power in the industry, used decision-making positions to present what they viewed as accurate, non stereotypical visions of African American life in advertisements.

Beyond Salesmanship in Print

The first responsibility of any advertisement is to persuade. In the first years of the twentieth century one influential copywriter, John E. Kennedy, offered a simple, yet still suitable, definition of advertising: Advertising, he said, is "salesmanship-on-paper." Whatever a salesperson might say to a customer on the sales floor, whether selling cars, clothes, automobiles, soda pop, or something else, that sales pitch is what an advertisement should communicate. Yes, advertisements are entertaining and their creators design them to grab and keep our attention, but their first job is to persuade us to take an action, to buy a product. But because of the ubiquity of advertisements, we sometimes fail to recognize the role advertisements have in persuading us about things beyond the particular product or idea they sell.

In the early twentieth century, advertisements told consumers of innovations in technology and interpreted the meaning of those advancements in their lives. In addition, their depictions of everyday life gave consumers an image of who they were and what the population of the country looked like. In presenting that vision, however, advertising personnel made no effort to be inclusive or even accurate. Instead, they addressed their work to the most powerful group: those consumers who had the economic power to buy, and thus uphold, the market society. Historian Roland Marchand theorized that advertisers worked in the framework of a "market democracy," in which one dollar equaled one vote. Within this structure those with more money had more votes than others, and those groups received more active attention from advertisers; in contrast, advertisers left those with little or no money or influence outside the system. Thus first years of the twentieth century, advertisers and advertising agencies did not recognize everyone as an equal citizen. Blacks were among those whose lowly status in advertisements confirmed their economic disenfranchisement, just as violence and Jim Crow laws confirmed their political disenfranchisement. But Marchand and other scholars have failed to account for how these "outsiders" reacted to the advertising vision of the consumer society. One way in which African Americans reacted to this economic exclusion was by fighting for changes in advertisements and employment in advertising agencies throughout the twentieth century.

As both consumers and advertising professionals, blacks in the industry linked the ideas of consumer and citizen as understood by the broader African American population and expressed them in their work. They knew from their experience as consumers, and from their research as advertising professionals, that blacks fervently wanted recognition as full and equal members of society and that a key part of that definition lay in their status as consumers. They used this awareness not only to position themselves for jobs within the advertising industry but then to also work from the inside to change how others conceived of black consumers and to influence how advertisements expressed that view. Not every African American in the industry was a card-carrying advocate, pressing the case for inclusion or for targeting black consumers. But even those who did not do so found that white companies sought them out primarily for their expertise in this new market. By clarifying blacks' struggles for citizenship in the consumer arena, this study sheds important light on both their market activity and their broader quest for equal citizenship in all areas of life in America.

Consuming is not the same as voting. It does not provide tangible liberation or freedom in the same manner as extending political and civil rights. But scholars have shown that over the course of the twentieth century, consumption became a key aspect of citizenship, even, as McGovern argues, "a symbol of American social democracy." Therefore, advertising's positive and representative depiction of blacks fulfilling their role in the consumer society would be symbolic evidence of blacks' accepted status in society: stereotypes and subservient roles pointed to and justified discrimination, while positive or even simply accurate representations would point to their role as equal consumers and equal citizens. As one black advertising specialist observed, "Advertising plays an important role in demonstrating upward social mobility and is a yardstick in charting progress in the search for acceptance and recognition by the majority society."

As Anthony Cortese has observed, "Ideologies are often latent or unrecognized; they are taken for granted as real, commonsense, or natural. The structure of ethnic, gender, and class inequality is justified as being profoundly destined by nature." Advertisements confirm to the viewer the current ideologies about race and the place of blacks in society. Yet, even in lieu of this sophisticated scholarly analysis of the sociocultural impact of advertising, African Americans' actions show that they recognized the utilitarian possibilities of advertisements. They knew that advertisements, with books, radio shows, music, and literature, formed one of the lenses through which others gained information about them. The increasing ubiquity of advertisements throughout the twentieth century made them one of the primary visualization mechanisms of that information. Specifically, blacks recognized that, because advertisements so effectively reinforced inequality, it might be possible to reverse their power to reinforce a message of equality. Positive and realistic images of African Americans could not only reflect the levels of their penetration into different areas of American life, that is; they could also ease white acceptance of them in those once closed areas.

Advertisements maintain a vexed relationship to reality. Their world is one of myth and makebelieve. In that world, everyone is beautiful, has ample leisure time, and has the time and money to buy and enjoy a bewildering array of goods. Additionally, if one looks at advertisements as documentaries, then the world for much of the twentieth century was one in which whites enjoyed the fruits of consumption and blacks, if visible at all, contentedly served them from the margins, just slightly out of view or focus. This reliance on myth has meant that advertisements have not challenged socially erected ideologies about race. Rather, they have reproduced those ideologies and in so doing have helped to reinforce them. Instead of presenting Aunt Jemima (or anyone related to her) in a position of consuming the pancakes she made, advertisements depicted the portly black female joyfully serving them to whites. Historian Grace noted, "Americans were people who could command the service of both blacks and consumer products." Blacks in twentieth century advertising were subservient objects that served the cornucopia of products hawked in advertisements, but rarely subjects who used them. The explicit message that ads delivered with crystal clarity was that consumers were white. In picturing blacks in servant roles and whites in command, advertising images visibly upheld the assumed social organization of everyday society.

Beyond their role as servants, advertisements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century commonly represented blacks as lazy, ignorant, violent, or as little more than comic relief. Negative images of blacks also frequently circulated in the broader culture on trading cards, dolls, children's books, cooking utensils, and other products. Caricatures of African Americans advertised Niggerhead Tobacco, and coal-black children, the Gold Dust Twins, were symbols of a popular soap powder. Already the proliferation of degrading images of blacks in commercial and leisure items helped transmit ideas of black inferiority even as real blacks tried to claim the full privileges of citizenship in the early twentieth century. "The child growing up in the home of an average northern family may not have been taught to hate the black race, but more than likely the child caught the basic principle of prejudice from day to day living," noted one scholar.

After the First World War, advertisements widely depicted blacks as cooks, porters, or agricultural laborers—a step up from items like Niggerhead Tobacco to be sure, but images that were nonetheless servile and demeaning. Advertisements used representations of black occupational skill and expertise to promote areas that existing stereotypes labeled blacks as naturally gifted in, such as cooking. Some advertisers used this ethnic shorthand as a testimonial of product quality and even, as archivist Fath...

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