African Americans and Advertising


African Americans have been represented in advertising since its inception in the mid-19th century. Most of the visual images (until World War II) featured African Americans as stereotypes and caricatures, the most prominent image arguably Aunt Jemima as the quintessential Mammy. These images were created by white advertising agencies for white consumers as a way to reassure whites in the midst of intense political and social change. By the 1960s, African Americans made advertising an important issue of the civil rights movement and we begin to see changes, many of which had been initiated by African American advertising pioneers in the 1920s: a fuller range of visual representations, the recognition of African Americans as consumers and the development of black-owned agencies. In the late 20th century, with the development of multicultural advertising, most major companies hired black-owned agencies to create ads that drew on perceived cultural traditions. While some of these representations relied on stereotypes that harken back to the 19th century (the all-knowing overweight black woman), we do see a much wider representation of African Americans and an increase in crossracial ads.

Gent in the Window Gent in the Window

Early Advertising

The development of advertising in the United States parallels the transition from legal enslavement to the full attainment of political and cultural citizenship.  As such, advertising became a site in which the processes related to the development of a market economy and the reconstitution of the concepts of democracy and equality were played out.  For African Americans, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of that public contestation meant bearing the brunt of often horrific white-produced advertising.  It was quite common to see African Americans engaged in violent and nonsensical activities.  In many, if not most, of these advertisements, there was no correlation between the product and the image.  Indeed, the negative images of African Americans were the appeal.  The Gent in the Window ads are a good example.  In these ads, an older African American male with exaggerated features and widely-spaced teeth speaks through a broken-slatted window and pitches for a brand of Chase & Sanborn Boston Roasted coffees.  In one ad he states, “My missus says dar’s no good coffee in these yer parts. Specs she’ll change ‘er mine when she drinks Seal Brand.” The ad harkens back to enslavement in its speech pattern and word choices as a way of taking white consumers back to a historical moment in which racialized roles were more sedimented. 

These types of ads also served to assure whites of an idealized racial pecking order in the midst of immense change by juxtaposing a modern product with an African American who represented the past.  In a 1912 advertisement for the Eclipse Clothes Wringer, two women—one African American and one white—are featured on either side of a new clothes wringer.  The white employer exclaims, “Why Dinah!  Finished Washing So Soon! Why It's Only Three O'Clock.”  The worker responds, “ Mi Golly! Mistis, Been Done Two Hour Dis Chile Has No More Trouble, Since You Done Got Dis Wringer.  Neber Tear De Clothes Neider.”  Multiple things are at work here.  First, as we saw in the previous ad, the linguistic and visual differences between the two women serve to solidify racial difference.  As important, the purchase of the product is a sign of the white employer's status as a modern citizen and consumer, intimately linking consumption to citizenship.  Also, it serves as a window into the cross-pollination of two distinct and interlocking economic modes:  domesticity and Fordism, signaled by the clock on the wall.  Again, the product assures white consumers that as they adapt to becoming middle-class citizens in the midst of national and international change, they can be comforted that some things remain the same. 

African Americans, on the other hand, were working on multiple levels to disrupt that narrative and to enact change in the U.S.  In the early 20th century, one of the most important changes was the rise in literacy rates, especially among urbanites.  By the early 20th century, there was an active and hungry black reading public on the precipice of becoming distinct consumers.  And African Americans newspapers and magazines were ready to feel that need.  These two developments also gave rise to some of the first black-owned advertising agencies.  In Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry, author Jason Chambers writes that Claude Barnett, founder of the Claude A. Barnett Advertising Agency, was one of the first to start his own agency with the slogan  “I reach the Negro.”  In 1917, Barnett also co-founded the Kashmir Chemical Company, a cosmetics business aimed at female consumers.  Through the cosmetics company, Barnett ushered in a a new aesthetic in advertising.

Old South Flavor

As evident in the previous ads above, African Americans featured in advertisements were usually chocolate brown with short curly hair.  Barnett, in contrast, wanted to project what he considered “positive” images of African American women.  For him, that generally meant light-skinned women with long, straight hair.  These “positive” images served multiple functions:   1) they served the  individual needs of consumers; 2) they helped Barnett and his associates reap profits; and 3) this new aesthetic began to incrementally decenter the overreaching slave or servant aesthetic.  Barnett's goals hint at later conversations and contestations over what constitutes beauty and racial identity that would surface in the 1960s and 1970s.

There have been numerous campaigns that that have left their mark on the advertising industry and our cultural imagination.  I will focus on three: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's and the United Negro College Fund.

Aunt Jemima is one of the most famous and longest-lasting advertising campaigns.  Aunt Jemima, illustrative of the archetypal Mammy, was developed in 1889 as a brand and logo for a new ready-mix, self-rising flour based on a vaudeville performer who sang “Aunt Jemima,” while wearing an apron and bandanna scarf.  Aunt Jemima was featured on the product and enlivened by the hiring of Nancy Green of Chicago who prepared pancakes and told stories to white audience.  Aunt Jemima and the trope of the overweight, dark brown female servant, literally and figuratively enabled every white household to secure the comfort of a southern “Mammy” in their homes.  Just as the genesis of the brand had roots in 19th century popular culture, the figure of the mammy continued to endure in the twentieth century in television shows, on radios, as well as salt shakers, clothes and memorials, and, of course, on pancake boxes and syrup bottles.  Amazingly, Quaker Oats didn't significantly revise the Aunt Jemima image until 1989.  This was the case despite clear evidence as early as the 1930s that most African Americans detested the image.  The new Aunt Jemima took off her scarf, lost weight, lightened her skin and donned  a pearl necklace. 

Unlike Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben's Rice was named after an actual person, an acclaimed rice farmer in Houston, Texas.  Uncle Ben's Rice is a parboiled rice product developed in the World War II era.  The inspiration for the actual image was Frank Brown, a maitre'd at a Chicago restaurant.  Bedecked in a suit and bow tie, the image is reminiscent of older male service workers employed by whites in hotels, trains (as Pullman porters) and private homes (as butlers).  While Uncle Ben is not as exaggerated as the Gent in the Window, it serves a similar function of assuring whites of their status and comforting them with the feeling of personal service.  It wasn't until the 21st century, that Uncle Ben was altered. In 2007, in a new advertising campaign, Uncle Ben is promoted to board chairperson, an apparent attempt on the part of the company to shed the servant persona textually but not physically.

African American woman in close-up shot wearing Avon mascara, eye shadow and nail polish

One of the most famous ad campaigns of the late 20th century was created in 1972 for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), credited to Forrest Long of the Young and Rubicam agency, a white-owned firm, in collaboration with the Ad Council.  With the UNCF motto, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” Long and his colleagues created one of the most popular global campaigns. Distinct from the other campaigns that have been explored in the essay, the UNCF campaign is most remembered for the imagery conjured up by the text rather than the imagery itself.  The motto waxes philosophically and universally about the importance and value of education for all.  It is striking that the advertisers chose to speak to (the hope of) more calmer times during the intensity of identity movements and the Vietnam War.  But not especially surprising.  The advertisement, as well as the fact that there were two African Americans who were part of the creative team at Young and Rubicam, speaks to the decades of work that civil rights organizations and advertising professionals engaged in to bring about change within the advertising industry.  Many of these advertising professionals would form their own agencies, such as Burrell Communications, Caroline R. Jones and Uniworld.

Where are we now?

African Americans appear to be ubiquitous in advertising.  While it is true that certain tropes remain—the overweight, dark-skinned woman; the slender, light-skinned woman; and the visible and silent figure—we also continue to see a range of individuals, including celebrities (actors, athletes, musicians, comedians), serving as spokesmodels for a whole range of products and companies.  Notably, for Cover Girl, Queen Latifah, who has a voluptuous figure, is a spokesmodel, as well as gender bending Janelle Monae.  Old Spice, a Proctor and Gamble product, chose Isaiah Mustafa as its spokesmodel, who was clearly meant to appeal to all.  The campaign was immensely successful and profitable, and helped Mustafa land a gig as co-host of the Morning After show on Hulu in the summer of 2012. 

The more we see African Americans engaged in ordinary activities for their own sake, the closer we'll see a clear departure from racist advertising begun more than a century ago.

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African Americans and Advertising