Black People Are Not Dark-Skinned White People

Chicago at Night/Michael MileyWikimedia/CC-SA-2.0

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Many American TV audiences got introduced to the big business of advertising through the show Mad Men and the infamous ad executive character, Don Draper. In the show, the cutthroat world of advertising was not kind to anyone who didn’t fall in line with the status quo. But in the real world, the status quo was maintained for years. That is, until Tom Burrell came to break the race ceiling in the industry.

Tom Burrell changed advertising and the way that Black people saw themselves in advertising and media. Starting as a mailroom attendant at Wade Advertising in Chicago, Burrell wanted to make ads that were for African-Americans, by African-Americans.

He worked his way up from the mailroom and worked at Needham, Harper & Steers, working with top ad executives like Keith Reinhard.

He eventually started his own agency, Burrell Communications. His first major ad was with Philip Morris International, the tobacco company. The company was traditionally fronted by the Marlboro man, a cowboy out in the fields with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. They were looking to revamp their image. Burrell, who had no knowledge of cowboys nor any interest in going back 100 years in history, decided on something different: a Black Marlboro Man in the city.

The ad was a hit and his agency began to boast high-profile clients – McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Ford, and Procter & Gamble. His successes in advertising have not gone unnoticed.

In 2004, the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame inducted him into One Club Creative Hall of Fame. His ads for Coca-Cola have been archived in the Library of Congress. Roberta Klara, editor at the advertising industry publication Adweek, even says that Burrell opened the door for micro-targeting, an advertising strategy that focuses on a specific group of people.

In 2010, Burrell wrote a book called Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. It examines how marketers have historically promoted Black inferiority. Burrell says that images and words have kept Blacks in a slave mentality and as he says, this book is a “call to action” to question why many of us have this mentality and what we can do the defeat it.

Being conscious of the impact of the images of ourselves and knowing when to draw the line and push back is part of breaking that mentality. The next time you see an ad or any piece of media that paints Black people in an unfavorable way, think to yourself: is this true? Is this how I want to see myself.

Learn more about how Burrell challenged the advertising world in his book “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.


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