Black is the New Green

Black is the New Green
Marketing to Affluent African Americans

By Leonard E. Burnett, Jr. and Andrea Hoffman

Excerpted from Chapter 2: Three Degrees of Separation

I Spy Julia

It’s an understatement to say that the generation of children who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the expanding Black middle- and upper-middle classes did so under the radar of the mass media. Because television is – or, at least was then – the reigning media, we can use the TV shows of the time as a sort of barometer of this phenomenon.

By 1956, in the years just prior to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, Nat King Cole was an international star, a top nightclub performer with several million-copy hit records, including the unforgettable “Mona Lisa.” He was a frequent and ratings-friendly guest star on the mainstream variety shows hosted by Perry Como, Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and other White entertainers. But he very much wanted a show of his own, and NBC agreed he should have one. The Nat King Cole Show began airing as a fifteen-minute weekly musical variety show in November, 1956 – without commercial sponsorship. The network had decided to carry the bill for the show itself, in anticipation of attracting a national sponsor for a program of such musical excellence. But advertising agencies were unsuccessful at convincing clients to buy time on the show, “fearful that white Southern audiences would boycott their products.” The show was cancelled.

It wasn’t until 1965 – again with the support of NBC – that television got its first regular Black leading man. Bill Cosby paired with Robert Culp in I Spy, an adventure series in which the actors played globetrotting Pentagon spies. Audiences ate up the slick and snazzy I Spy for nearly four years, and the show’s success helped pave the way for more Black actors in guest roles on other regular television series, including the popular Dick Van Dyke Show. But the portrayal of African Americans on TV as debonair international spies or typical middle-class suburbanites was certainly not the norm. From a virtual absence of people of color on television in the 1940s through the 1960s, the 1970s were a period of what the writer Christine Acham calls “hyper blackness.” The shows of this era were roundly criticized as being too rosy in their portrayals of racial relations (Diahann Carroll, the star of Julia, was a nurse and Vietnam War widow who seemed to live in a bubble of racial harmony), distastefully stereotypical (Flip Wilson’s character, the sharp and stylish Geraldine Jones, the originator of the phrase, “What you see is what you get,” as a throwback to Sapphire in Amos ?n’ Andy), or frankly lame for their lack of any real social commentary (Wilson, for example, who avoided social critique, was on the air for four years, while Richard Pryor, who was far more bitingly critical in his social commentary, had a show that lasted for four episodes).

Tellingly, the Black viewership of these shows divided down not a racial line, but a class one: working-class Blacks appreciated the use of traditional Black humor and entertainment techniques and tuned in, while middle-class and upper-middle-class Blacks – the parents and grandparents of today’s AAAs – tuned decidedly out. These shows contained little that related to their own class experience, or to the class experience of their children.

Advertising to the Black Audience

Television, of course, wasn’t the only media to fail in representing the realities of Black middle-class life, converging around stereotypes to dismiss a whole segment of high-achieving African American families. A look back through advertising archives reveals nearly a hundred years of marketers missing the mark. In fact, looking back on the advertisements that featured images of Blacks in the early part of the twentieth century is not just offensive – it is downright cringe-worthy.

Though ads featuring Blacks in the 1960s increased in number, “the manner in which they were portrayed tended to confirm and perpetuate racial stereotypes.” Later, however, “improvements” in the occupational status of Black models in magazine ads were evident. There was an increase in the use of Black models between 1967 and 1974, but they “tended to advertise personal items, such as hair products, rather than nonpersonal products, such as automobiles.”

However, the 1960s and 1970s did bring some small breakthroughs in the way Blacks were represented in media. The young and growing generation of middle-class Blacks was taken seriously by advertisers like never before. Levi’s, Lee, and J.C. Penney competed to dress the rising Black middle class. Greyhound appealed to Black travelers with an ad featuring two napping children riding together side-by-side – a young, White boy dressed as an Indian and a Black boy dressed as a cowboy. Atlantic City advertised its “boardwalk bonanza” with print ads showcasing a young Black couple building sandcastles on its beach. Armstrong Tires targeted this audience with a rather strange ad: a photo of a young Black woman posed seductively beside a tire under the headline “the tire for lovers.”

Not all advertising to this audience was a step in the right direction, of course. Johnnie Walker Red, Hiram Walker bourbon, and Martini and Rossi vermouth were among the legal beverage ads that featured Black faces enjoying their products, as did ads for Viceroy, Tareyton, and Kent cigarettes – and it is the ads for these kinds of adult products around which controversy still swirls. In 1991 a report from the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention did an analysis of billboard placement in neighborhoods in San Francisco, California. What they found was that “across all billboard advertising of products and services, tobacco (19%) and alcohol (17%) were most heavily advertised.” Furthermore, “Black neighborhoods had the highest rate of billboards per 1000 population,” and “Black neighborhoods were proportionately more likely than other neighborhoods to have billboards advertising menthol cigarettes and malt liquor.”

Twelve years later, these industries were still disproportionately targeting the Black audience. A 2003 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that, of the $333 million in advertising placed by the nation’s alcohol industry that year, “Blacks from 12 to 20 years old saw 77 percent more of these ads . . . than their non-Black peers did.”

It was obvious the industry was “directly targeting Black kids,” according to the Reverend Jesse Brown, executive director of the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery. “African American kids tend to be trendsetters in what they buy, so the industry thinks if it can get more African American kids to buy, it can also get their White counterparts to buy.”

It’s not merely inappropriate placement, or overplacement, of ads that expose young Blacks to adult or unhealthy products that remains a disappointingly contemporary issue. But let us suggest that some of the lingering problems with the limited or misrepresentative images of African Americans in creative has to do with the historic lack of Blacks in the executive offices of advertising agencies. Through the decades, though Blacks were targeted by advertisers, and there were some Black faces in print and television ads, the people who created those ads were rarely themselves Black. In fact, there was a time when it was so rare to find an African American in an executive position in an advertising agency that the 1970 movie Putney Swope – tagged as “the truth and soul movie” – featured a comedic storyline about an advertising firm that accidentally voted in the Black partner as the new head of the company. In real life, of course, things weren’t quite that comical. The late Vince Cullers of Chicago launched the first Black advertising agency in 1956, while Luis D?az Albertini founded the first Latino shop, Spanish Advertising and Marketing Services, in 1962 to attempt to both appeal to these minority segments as well as improve the images that represented them in the mass media. Jason Chambers, a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois, tells the inside story of the history of Blacks in the ad business in his book, Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry. He writes that Blacks in advertising in the early days of the 1960s and 1970s saw themselves as having a “dual responsibility” to their clients to sell products to the Black community while working to change its often negative image. “Their lowly status in advertisements confirmed their economic disenfranchisement, just as violence and Jim Crow laws confirmed their political disenfranchisement,” Chambers wrote, but “getting to that point . . . first required getting white-owned companies to recognize the black consumer market.”

Getting companies to recognize the underserved and generally untapped Black market – especially the AAA market – is our ongoing challenge. And companies like Lagrant Communications, Muse Communications, and UniWorld help marketers reach multicultural consumers. These are important moves forward as we estimate that of total ad spending in the United States, less than 4 percent is directed at any level of minority consumer.

Still, for every Allstate ad featuring a Dennis Haysbert (the actor perhaps best known for portraying America’s first Black president on the television show 24), there are two or more that feature African Americans in stereotypical (i.e., dancing or playing sports) or even subservient roles. In one strikingly unfortunate image, Intel advertised its Core2 Duo desktop processor with a photo of six athletic Black men in cubicles bowing down to one White man who has arms cockily crossed and a smug smile on his face. This image is under the headline, “Multiply computing performance and maximize the power of your employees.” We wonder if Intel gave a thought to the evocation of subservience in this ad – or to how that image might play with African American consumers.

It is ads like this one that can make us appreciate Gucci’s marketing campaign with Rihanna. However misguided these ads are as an attempt to attract the AAA segment, they do feature the image of a beautiful, strong, and empowered Black woman.

Excerpted from Black is the New Green by Leonard E. Burnett, Jr. and Andrea Hoffman. Copyright © 2010 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.

Leonard E. Burnett, Jr. and Andrea Hoffman

Copyright © 2010 Palgrave Macmillan. All rights reserved.

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