When Do Multicultural Ads Become Offensive? Your Thoughts

Readers debate a recent Atlantic article on race and advertising in the 1970s. Tom Burrell, the legendary adman, responds to critics of his early work.

The Atlantic

As part of The Atlantic’sSelling the Seventies” series, my colleague Lenika Cruz recently explored the moment in the early 1970s when major companies began marketing directly to African Americans. The resulting debate in the comments section revolved around a central tension in the ad industry: How to connect with demographics without stepping on stereotypes. Regarding the ads featured in Lenika’s piece, mostly from McDonald’s, commenter JohnJMac facepalms:

My God, these commercials are hysterical. It’s a parody of what a bunch of white Mad Men would conceive, having spent a weekend watching movies starring Pamela Grier.

Benson Stein says of the early ‘70s, “This was the era of blaxploitation films such as Blacula, Shaft, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, so I could see this spilling over into mainstream advertising.” UrbanRedneck2, on the other hand, shrugs:

I don’t get the problem. The ads were showing African Americans dressed in the way they often did back then and also showed how many of them talked. So what’s the problem? Why does every advertisement have to be sanitized and one size fits all?

KlugerRD points to a part of the story that’s missing:

(Courtesy of Tom Burrell)

You get the impression from the article that the normal white-populated agencies did these McDonald’s ads. Wrong.

In 1971, Tom Burrell started his own ad agency in Chicago called Burrell Communications. Tom was an African-American guy who began a trend with agencies specializing in creating advertising targeted at African Americans. He began with accounts like Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, and McDonald’s. So it’s very likely the ads you showed were done by Burrell or another African-American agency.

I reached out to Tom Burrell and he confirmed that those McDonald’s ads were indeed from his agency. He also mentioned that his founding partner, Emmett McBain, submitted a bunch of prints to the Smithsonian back in 1985, so I ventured down to the archives of the National Museum of American History to check them out. (Coincidentally, the museum is about to open a big new exhibit on business history that includes “marketing campaigns targeted to diverse audiences, including teens, African Americans and Latinos.”) Here’s one of the prints from the McBain collection:

As awkward or even offensive as that copy might look today, did it offend black people at the time? Lowell Thompson, an African American adman since 1968 who worked at Burrell Advertising and helped Burrell on his book, appeared in our comments section to shed some light on the question:

What seems so lame and stereotypical to EurAmericans here in 2015 seemed much less so to AfrAmerican in 1970. Most AfrAmericans were happy to be recognized as thinking, buying human beings after over 300 years of being “branded” as subhuman beasts. (I’m working on a book, “Mad Invisible Men & Women,” that chronicles the history of “black” images and image makers in America.)

Commenter Valyrian Steel suspects the McDonald’s ads were successful:

The purpose of an ad campaign isn’t to fit the sensitivity rubric of a professor’s race, class, and gender seminar 40 years into the future. Ads exist to sell product. So the article omits the most important and interesting info: Did these campaigns (no matter how clumsy) increase revenue in the demo? Given that McDonald’s has far more locations, market share, and revenue than any other restaurant on Earth, I suspect the ads worked extraordinarily well.

They did, according to Madison Avenue and the Color Line, Jason Chambers’s history of African Americans in the ad industry:

After studying the slogan for McDonald’s [in 1971], “You deserve a break today,” Burrell decided it was ineffective in reaching blacks. He believed the theme presented McDonald’s as being a “special treat” that families used sporadically. In contrast, his research suggested that McDonald's restaurants were a part of many blacks’ daily experience. Therefore the idea that the restaurants were only useful when one needed or wanted a break was meaningless to blacks. In place of the original slogan, he suggested the theme “McDonald's is good to have around” for the black consumer market.

The new slogan and accompany advertising campaign were a hit among black consumers. From that point onward, McDonald's remained one of the agencies largest clients.

I asked Burrell to respond to the critiques of his McDonald’s ads from Professor Charlton McIlwain and adman Neil Drossman, who were quoted in Lenika’s piece:

“Cynical”? “Superficial”? All of these comments take me from confused to incredulous. Are you sure they’re referring to Burrell’s advertising?  The comments have me bewildered because, after making critical comments about the McDonald’s ads, both go on to speak of general market agencies. I say “incredulous” because I can’t believe commercials like "Daddy’s Home”, “First Glasses”, “Joey”, “Double Dutch” [seen below], "Counting Fries,” “Family Reunion”, “Calvin” and countless other classics could be perceived as negative, cynical and shallow.

Our agency has been consistently heralded by consumers, corporations, community and trade organizations for the respect with which we address the African-American consumer. So I’m more than a little confused by the criticism. I’m also not sure what is being recommended as an antidote to what they perceive to be problematic.

[Ed. note: This Coke ad from Burrell in ‘76 won him his first Clio, the industry’s version of an Oscar:

I am sure we, on occasion, might have been less than perfect, but we also know the following from years of research during my 32+ years in charge:

  1. Our work has been very successful in creating work that makes our target feel good about ourselves and our culture. [This approach is called “positive realism.”]
  2. That black people are not dark-skinned white people; we came on the American scene in a totally unique way: against our will and enslaved. And we know that those circumstances  led to the formation of unique consumer attitudes and behavior patterns.
  3. That our work  was instrumental  in enhancing the image, sales and brand loyalty for our clients.

Drossman emails a response to Burrell:

I said I thought those three McDonald’s ads [one seen to the left] were cynical and superficial. Little bit a sterotypin’ goin’ on there, no? I still think that. Listen, we all get up to the plate and strike out every now and then. In no way was this an indictment of Burrell Communications. I didn’t even know who did those ads. But I thought they were representative of the tone deafness of the times.

I have seen a lot of your work and there’s much to be proud of there. And you have the awards and accolades to show for it. What’s more, agencies like yours were pioneers in their efforts to reach the African-American market, an underserved market, given short shift by the mainstream agencies of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. My view is that it wasn’t a sea change, maybe just a puddle change.

McIlwain also believes the ‘70s “did not live up to those bold intentions” of Burrell and other ad pioneers:

On the one hand, black folks for the first time began seeing themselves in television advertising. For folks who had been so invisible for so many years, to look and say “hey, I see myself on that screen.” That was significant.

On the other hand, people viewing advertisements rarely know the personalities and circumstances behind the production. They take the ads at face value. For the McDonald’s ads and many others (produced by many others), that meant that many Black folks would likely respond, “I don’t talk like that?” “I don’t look like that way when I eat, and, by the way, I don’t have any trouble with tipping.”

Here’s Burrell again:

The “casualization" of the English language, while strongly associated with black culture, came into being long before the ‘70s, and it goes far beyond the black race. G-dropping? If I recall correctly, there were lily-white ditties like “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Doodlin’,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Goin’ Fishin’,” “Moanin’,” “Nothin’ says lovin' like somethin’ from the oven,” “Hey, Good Lookin', whatcha got cookin’?,” “S’posin',” “Singin’ in the Rain,” etc.  

So let’s dispel the specious notion that g-’droppin’ was created in the ‘70s to reach black consumers. It all came down to attempts (admittedly occasionally failed) to warm up what had been a stilted or non-existing relationship between the advertiser and black consumer.

For more on the history behind Burrell’s work and others’, be sure to check out Planet Money’s recent episode “This Ad’s For You.” Back to our readers, here’s KoreanKat:

While it is interesting to analyze these ‘70s ads, it invites the overcompensating leftist reflex to denounce them disproportionate to their historical distance and context. It’s also important to remember you can’t please everyone. If advertisers depict minority persons reflecting mainstream culture, I can see the same ______ Studies professors inveighing about how it is “white washing” diversity.

The Acedian points a finger at the media:

I’ve a feeling that younger journalists have no real connection to the eras they’re writing about and feel everything from a bygone era was “racist.” People in urban communities did indeed speak in a certain way, as many U.S. regions tend to have their own vernacular, inflection, and pronunciation, and advertisers were never shy about picking up on that to “speak” to those demographics.

Kwame_zulu_shabazz nods:

Yes, Acedian, I had a similar take. Some of the critique in the Atlantic article sounded like upwardly mobile black “respectability politics.” African Americans in ghettos (I’m from Inglewood) frequently dropped the “g,” so it seems to be the opposite of “tone deaf.”

And marathag doesn’t see the g-droppin’ as anything special: “All advertising is really cynical and nothing but superficial effort to ‘reach’ a targeted audience.” Tom agrees:

Painfully stupid ads aimed at blacks was not the end of it. This era was filled with painfully stupid and overly earnest ads aimed at young people, where everyone said “groovy” and “let’s rap” (in the ‘70s, “rap” meant “talk”) and dressed like a middle-class hippie.

A prime example was easy to find:

A snipe from poolside:

Never seen in The Atlantic: An article about how Marlboro perpetuated “fraught stereotypes” of white Americans by featuring a cowboy on a trail ride.

Speaking of Marlboro, Burrell was also hired by Philip Morris in the early ‘70s to develop a “Black Marlboro Man.” The company had already tried to market directly to black smokers but with little success.

Those ads appeared in Ebony magazine in July 1970 and June 1970, respectively, and they featured Bill Pickett and Bronco Sam, two black cowboys from the late 19th century. The ads flopped. Another one I saw in the Smithsonian archives, from 1968, features a standard scene of the Marlboro Man riding a horse juxtaposed with an inset of a formally-dressed black couple lighting a cigarette: “Come to Marlboro Country.” It’s as if Philip Morris just slapped a stock image of African Americans onto an existing ad, and the contrast looks bizarre.

Then, in 1972, Burrell and McBain stepped in. From Madison Avenue and the Color Line:

[Burrell and McBain] argued that, although whites considered the Marlboro Man a “hero,” blacks considered him a “loser.” Research suggested that blacks defined manhood as “a man who took charge of family, lived in the city, [and] was involved with people in a responsible role.” Where the cowboy was an individual, a black man was with his family or friends; where the cowboy was alone, a black man was active in his community.

Therefore blacks’ definition of manhood was an almost complete reversal of that of both the white and black individualistic cowboys prevalent in Marlboro ads. The advertisements created by Burrell and McBain [...] featured a black man as the central figure, located in urban settings, involved with his community, and on the move.

Two examples from the McBain collection:

Another ad in the archives features a “Black Marlboro Man” with an Afro browsing a sidewalk sale with a female companion in a head wrap. Another ad shows a similar man buying fruit from an older black gentleman on the street. AdAge acknowledges, “The campaign was able to increase the brand’s market share among African-American males.”

Commenter Sirius Jones fast-forwards:

It’s a huge shame that ads today have gone in the complete opposite direction as the early ‘70s. Every time there are non-whites represented in advertising they’re always white washed. Advertisers feel as though there is nothing distinct about people of color. They are nothing more than white people who were dipped in paint. You see blacks in advertisements wearing a European suit smiling nicely with his white colleague. You see a black guy wearing a polo shirt watching some white sitcom. POC are treated as white people with no distinct culture.

Diana Mitford responds:

The only solution is to have PoC make their own ads. We need more diversity in the workplace to represent the multicultural place that America is becoming.

Some pioneering examples of multicultural ads were chronicled by Kyle Coward in his recent Atlantic piece, “When Hip-Hop First Went Corporate”:

This 30-second 1994 commercial was part of a campaign for St. Ides, a low-cost, previously obscure brand of malt liquor, that was the first to weave a hip-hop aesthetic into its central messaging.

Today—when Dr. Dre is an Apple executive, Jay-Z has partnered with Samsung on an album release, and Snoop Dogg has appeared in Chrysler commercials—the St. Ides campaign appears strange, a relic from a time when hip-hop culture hadn’t yet earned wider Madison Avenue respect.

“Back then, part of the excitement within the hip-hop subculture, as it still was at that time, was the dawning realization of the potential for hip-hop marketization,” says Eithne Quinn, a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom. “Many artists, from poor backgrounds as they often were, didn’t see this as selling out.” …

[W]hat made St. Ides different was that it’s one of the earliest examples—if not the earliest—of a brand with no inherent ties to hip-hop completely building its identity around the genre, entrusting the culture’s tastemakers with its messaging.

A more recent example of entrusting hip-hop tastemakers with ad messaging occurred in 2013 when Mountain Dew hired Tyler, The Creator to write and direct a series of three commercials:

Twitter exploded in outrage, led by Syracuse academic Boyce Watkins, who called the third ad “arguably the most racist commercial in history.” Tyler responded at length:

I guess he found it racist because I was portraying stereotypes, which is ridiculous because, one, all of those dudes [in the line-up] are my friends. Two, they’re all basically in their own clothes. [...] Three, no [commenters] saw that commercial and said, this is racist. Everyone either said, “Wow, this is ridiculous, it’s a goat talking,” or they said, “Wow, this is the dumbest, why would they even make this?” [...]

It’s a black guy making this, and if it’s so racist and feeding into stereotypes, why in the first commercial that goes along with it, is there a black male with his Asian wife? In the second commercial, it’s a black male with a professional job as a police officer listening to hardcore rock music -- which supposedly the stereotype is that black people don’t listen to that.

Can you think of other controversial ads that blurred the line between authenticity and stereotype? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update the post with the best examples. Update from a reader:

This is an interesting topic. All the concerns people express really put a spotlight on contemporary culture more than they do on the past. Why is something seen as awkward or offensive when it wasn’t awkward or offensive in the past?

Here’s a commercial from the ‘80s for Busch beer:

I presume it worked well and sold beer and did so by connecting the people of the ‘80s with an image of American men, idealized but still relatable. It’s more of a satire today, but back then, I’m assuming, it was ordinary and tapped into people’s identity. Interpret it from the present cultural perspective and see how sexualized it appears now.

Though not quite as sexualized as Schmitts. Another reader emails:

I enjoyed the article. One piece of media I did not see included was billboards.

As a white person who grew up in one of the first suburbs of St. Louis to integrate, I watched the accompanying white flight to the outer burbs away from “those people” with much sadness; I did not understand why someone escaping the mess of the inner city schools was a horrible thing. I watched our billboards go from a very wide range of product  to a very few damaging products targeted to African Americans. Billboards in our area suddenly became about Kool’s, Salem’s, Newport’s, Colt 45, Remy Martin, Rent-A-Center, the Army, white bread, and fried chicken. Much later: cash for gold, pawn shops, and payday loans.

It always struck me as reaching for the lowest common denominator. Did black people not buy cars, appliances, and all the other things white people bought?