• U.S.

Commercials: Crossing the Color Line

6 minute read

A few months ago, Negro Actress Zaida Coles auditioned for a TV commercial and landed a job pitching a new Bristol-Myers cleanser. Or so she thought. After further reflection, the advertising agency turned her down—not because she was black, but because she was not black enough.

Like many commercial makers nowadays, the agency wanted a darker-skinned Negro so that there would be no mistaking the integrated nature of its advertisements. Threatened with boycotts and scolded by civil rights groups, sponsors have responded by doubling the number of integrated commercials in the past year to 5% of the total number of ads made. Rightly noting that this figure is still too low, General Foods has set for itself an even higher quota of 15%. The search for black talent has become so intense, in fact, that one agency is offering its employees a $50 finder’s fee. This prompted Negro Leader James Farmer to observe: “I don’t think we ought to let them have a Negro that cheaply. I think instead we ought to start ourselves a rent-a-Negro company.”

Paranoid Profession The stirring of Madison Avenue’s social conscience is still tentative and, to say the least, tardy. Appraising his industry’s role in the “great moral issue of our time,” Ogilvy & Mather Chairman John Elliott Jr. confesses that “our record is not even average. We bring up the rear. That is a hell of a position for people who consider themselves problem solvers, pacesetters and molders of public opinion.” It is also a hell of a position for businessmen. Last year, Negroes spent $30 billion on consumer items, or 6% of the national total, and as Louise Hexter, account executive for Norman, Craig & Kummel, says, “It is utterly absurd to exclude them from your advertising.” Nonetheless, admen are proceeding with extreme caution because, says Mrs. Hexter, “we’re scared to death. We’re scared of anything that will cause adverse publicity.”

In the past, admen have shunned non-white performers in commercials for fear of alienating Southern viewers and attaching an “ethnic identification” to a product. What white Mississippian would want to drink a beer that is praised by a Negro? There was also the feeling that the sight of a black face would destroy the carefully contrived fantasy world of the TV ad; the sponsors were worried that the viewer would suddenly exclaim, “Hey, there’s a Negro!”—and miss the message. Recently, however, a test commercial featuring a Negro mother talking about Pampers, a disposable diaper, showed that 60% of the viewers in the South did not recall the actress’s race. Still, some Southern-based sponsors—among them several tobacco companies—argue that “we’re salesmen, not sociologists.” They have yet to integrate their commercials, while others make a separate set of white-only ads for distribution in the South. For the most part, integrated ads pitch mass-consumer items like beer and gasoline but not such “white-oriented products” as hair tints and certain cosmetics.

Idyllic Suburb. Those advertisers who have crossed the color line are now confronted with a new problem: how to portray the Negro. Self-conscious to a fault, integrated commercials never show a Negro as a heavy or in a menial position. Nor are blacks ever afflicted with bad breath or body odor. Kool cigarettes, for example, casts a Negro actor as a bright young trial lawyer; Viceroy casts another as a bright young stockbroker. Schaefer beer has a junior executive type who plays hand ball at the club with a white friend, who throws his arm around his shoulder as they stroll off to a classy cocktail lounge.

One Crest toothpaste commercial shows a pert black housewife bidding on antiques at an auction that is in a presumably wealthy white neighborhood; in another, a black science teacher lectures white parents on what to do to keep Junior’s teeth bright. In toy commercials, white, Negro and Oriental children frolic together in an idyllic suburban setting that exists only in some copywriter’s imagination. In Ad-Land, there is no discrimination between whites and nonwhites, at least in one sense: both are treated unrealistically.

The basic question, as Negro Actor Ossie Davis states it, is “Who interprets the Negro to the American? Basically, it has been done by the whites.” As a result, says a Negro marketing consultant, D. Parke Gibson, “integrated advertising can only change the whites’ image of Negroes. It cannot change the Negroes’ image of themselves.” Thus, says Gibson, the reaction of the black community to integrated ads is “neutral” and has little or no effect on their buying patterns.

Cop-Out. According to Hollywood Talent Agent Bill Cunningham, the new Negro stereotype created by TV commercials derives at least in part from the notion that white buyers “won’t go for actors who have very Negroid features. What we all see are the very attractive Negroes who, if you bleached their skins white, you’d think were Caucasian.” Adds one agency talent director: “If they sound like Negroes, they haven’t got a chance. They have to look like Negroes and sound like white people.”

The easiest way to avoid the problems of portrayal is what Negro Actor Robert Hooks calls the “copout: Put the Negroes in the background—blurred and slightly out of focus—and show them for just a split second.” Indeed, despite the trend toward integrated ads, the agencies are often too reluctant to let the Negro step front and center. In one study of 8,279 ads shown over a three-week period late last year, only 199 contained nonwhite performers, and of that number just 16 had lead or speaking roles. By showing a few black faces on the fringe of a party scene, says Urban League Director Whitney Young, “the admen think they’ve done their bit, and the public reacts by assuming that the problem is solved. It’s important that blacks are used more frequently in ads because they serve to educate the masses of viewers that black people, like themselves, have an important role in American life. The situation was awful, is better, and has to get better.”

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