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How An African-American Ad Man Changed The Face Of Advertising


Here is an idea that took advertisers decades and decades to realize.

TOM BURRELL: Black people are not dark-skinned white people.

GREENE: Black people are not dark-skinned white people. Those words spoken by legendary ad man Tom Burrell seemed very obvious in 2015. In the '60s, though, the idea that blacks or other minorities should be advertised to directly seemed very risky, to say the least. Sonari Glinton from our Planet Money team tells us how Tom Burrell convinced corporate America to change the face of advertising.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Even today, Tom Burrell says he's used to being the only black guy in the room. Back in 1961, he was the only black guy in advertising in all of Chicago when he started in the mailroom at the Wade Advertising Agency. He says the way he got over was by using his sense of humor, like when an executive at the agency asked this question at the office Christmas party.

BURRELL: Tom, we're happy you're here. We're wondering if you would be willing or interested in singing some down-home songs.


GLINTON: What we were you thinking when he said that? What did you think?

BURRELL: I think I did the same thing I just did. I think I laughed.

GLINTON: Burrell worked his way up from the mailroom to ad writing. But in those days, ads were pretty generic - you know, one-size-fits-all - and not a lot of black people.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: With Alka-Seltzer, (singing) relief is just a swallow away.

GLINTON: And when they did try to do ads focused at the black consumer, they often got them comically - sometimes insultingly - wrong. Burrell remembers an ad for Schafer Beer that hearkened back to the days before the Civil War.

BURRELL: The line was 1856 - that was a very good year for beer.

GLINTON: It was a very bad year for black people (laughter).

BURRELL: And this ad is showing up in Ebony Magazine. And it just screamed insensitivity. It was a horrible year for us.

GLINTON: Burrell had a better idea - ads designed with an understanding of black culture that were made by African-Americans. And he'd moved to a different ad agency, Needham, Harper & Steers, filled with ad geniuses like Keith Reinhard. I'm sure you know his work.

KEITH REINHARD: (Singing) You'll feel better knowing anytime, anywhere that like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

GLINTON: Reinhard says Tom Burrell was among the most talented copywriters of any race. And he remembers Burrell really talking about how marketing to black consumers is very different from marketing to white consumers.

REINHARD: I had some reservations about some of the things he was saying - whether or not we, as Caucasian, creative people, would be able to appeal to a black audience. I felt that we could and that we had in some cases, but it was pretty hard to argue with Tom when he said blacks are not white people with dark skin.

GLINTON: Eventually, Burrell started his own agency. It became known as Burrell Communications. His first crack at a major ad campaign came when Phillip Morris wanted a black version of their longhorn lassoing, horseback riding cowboy, the Marlboro Man.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The longhorns come to Marlboro country - Marlboro 100s in the big, gold package.

BURRELL: I don't even know where to start. I mean, first of all, when you start talking about longhorns, you've lost me. And then when you start talking about a hundred years ago, you lost me on that, too, because that's the last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys - doesn't sound too safe.

GLINTON: Burrell took the Marlboro Man out of the country and put him in the city. And instead of a rugged white guy, he was a cool, urbane black one.

BURRELL: We took the coolest guys we could find, and we photographed them in settings that were culturally relevant.

GLINTON: Cultural relevance - being hip to black culture. That's what Burrell did for the ad world, from jazz to slang to hip-hop to double-Dutch jump rope.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Chicken Chicken Chicken McNugget. It's a (unintelligible) Chicken McNugget. Then double-Dutch it.

GLINTON: In short order, Burrell landed some of the biggest clients anyone can get - Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Ford, Procter & Gamble. And what he finally brought to television were positive depictions of African-Americans on television in the mainstream in almost every commercial break.

ROBERT KLARA: I feel like what Burrell did opened the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today.

GLINTON: Robert Klara is an editor at Adweek.

KLARA: And the way that he did that was by making mainstream brands not just aware of the black community as a very viable community of consumers, but he also furnished them with a means to reach them that was new and effective.

GLINTON: Klara says black or white, short or tall, gay or straight - when you see an ad that seems like it was made especially for you, you're probably right. And we have Tom Burrell to thank for it. Sonari Glinton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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