Madison Avenue and the Color Line by Jason Chambers focuses its second chapter—titled “The Jackie Robinsons”—on the innovators who really started things moving for Blacks in the advertising industry. While previous pioneers like Claude Barnett and John H. Johnson helped to define and sell the Black consumer market, the next wave of ad people proceeded to create messages that actually targeted and depicted the audience.
Chambers continues to deliver an incredibly thorough view of the key players and events—spanning the 1930s through the 1950s—while highlighting the historical happenings that shaped and influenced it all. The chapter initially chronicles the “Brown Hucksters,” Black salesmen who worked directly with American corporations to woo consumers. Next, Chambers features the early Black advertising agencies, disputing the popular belief that Vince Cullers was the first. The author then spotlights Blacks employed by general market agencies as experts for Black consumers and mainstream consumers too. In 54 pages, Chambers sketches out the foundations for the segregated slots that still exist today to pigeonhole Madison Avenue’s minorities. To see it up close, simply buy the book.
A chapter topic deserving a few tangential observations involves David J. Sullivan, who schooled many culturally clueless advertisers on Black consumers during the 1940s. In one noteworthy article, Sullivan offered the following list of don’ts:
• Don’t exaggerate Negro characters with flat noses, thick lips, kinky hair and owl eyes.
• Avoid Negro minstrels. Avoid even the use of white people with blackface and a kinky wig for hire to depict a Negro.
• Don’t constantly name the Negro porter or waiter “George.” Nothing makes Negroes angrier than to be called George.
• Avoid incorrect English usage, grammar and dialect…get away from “Yas suh,” “sho,” “dese,” “dem,” “dat,” or “dat ’ere,” “gwine,” “you all.”
• Don’t picture colored women as buxom, broad-faced, grinning mammies and Aunt Jemimas.
• Don’t refer to Negro women as “Negresses.”
• Avoid, even by suggestion, “There’s a nigger in the woodpile,” or “coon,” “shine,” and “darky.”
• Don’t illustrate…any…advertising piece showing a Negro eating watermelon, chasing chickens, or crap shooting.
• Don’t picture the “Uncle Mose” type. He is characterized by kinking hair and a stooped, tall, lean and grayed sharecropper, always in rags.
• Avoid using the word “Pickaninny,” or lampooning illustrations of Negro children.
• Don’t insult the clergy.
It would be interesting to learn if CMOs had the list taped near their desks for handy reference. The book’s author also wrote that Sullivan didn’t provide advertisers with a similar collection of things to do. Well, the stuff generated by Black advertising agencies in the decades after Sullivan’s heyday might inspire the following conceptual catalog:
To reach Black consumers, do use celebrities, jazz, blues, R&B, anything related to hip hop, doo wop singers on brownstone stoops, gospel choirs, clergy, inventors, comedians, athletes, fly girls, smooth operators, entrepreneurs, successful business people, sassy sistahs, double-dutch, family reunions, extended family, students in caps and gowns, soul food, barbecues, barbershops, beauty salons, basketball, drumlines, HBCUs, spoken word, rhymes, tricked-out rides, rims, the word style, the word pimp (except in reference to actual pimps), the slang of the minute, keeping it real, urban neighborhoods, block parties, bid whist, the electric slide, break-dancing, stepping, tap dancing (carefully and preferably with Savion Glover), fist bumps, variations on Black Power fists, dance clubs, DJs, graffiti, kente cloth, African art, Civil Rights activists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Snoop Dogg, inspirational quotes, afros/afro picks, braids, dreadlocks, fades, grills (respectfully), tattoos, nails, boomboxes, baseball caps, bling or this dude.
But seriously, contrary to anything anyone says, there are no secret formulas for reaching Black consumers. Building a relationship with the Black consumer market—as well as any special market—requires embracing a fundamental advertising tenet: Know Your Target. While U.S. advertising agencies adopted account planning in the 1990s to better connect with consumers, minority advertising professionals have been utilizing their own versions of the discipline since the 1900s. Of course, Whites take full credit for having invented it.
This is the fifth installment of MultiCultClassics’ running review of Madison Avenue and the Color Line by Jason Chambers. See the previous posts here, here, here and here.