O.J. Simpson appeared in Hertz commercials in the 1980s.— AP
If you are not a serious viewer of television and only an occasional watcher, like me, you have observed the substantial number of Black Americans appearing in commercials. Some people argue that there are too many Black Americans in television commercials today.
Obviously, companies are not using Blacks in television commercials out of the goodness of their hearts or as a result of corporate responsibility, it is all about the money. Some years ago, the spending power of Black Americans was highlighted by D. Park Gibson in several books. While it may have taken years for this to be recognized by companies, today it is well understood and respected. For some companies, the Black dollar means the difference between profit and loss.
We do not just see a Black faces in television commercials as those that create these commercials have gone a step further and have found an interesting approach to getting the public to give greater attention to commercials that advertise their products and services. Increasingly, we see interracial couples and bi-racial children as this is something that catches the attention of everyone, regardless of their views about interracial relationships. Advertisers have, and I believe purposely, included characters that challenge the observers to distinguish if one is Black or white.
What makes this phenomenon even more interesting is the presentation of Blacks in commercials in warm family relationships as well as intimate settings. For those of you that have been “around the block,” you know that things were not always this way. In fact, I bet that many of you are “hard pressed” to identify those early commercials featuring Blacks that appeared on television, back in the day.
I tried from memory and conversations with friends and colleagues to identify early commercials that were on television that featured Blacks.
Believe me, it was a struggle. Thus, I turned to a Google search that identified several Black commercials; many I do not recall seeing. I thought that some of our Black television shows such as “The Nat King Cole Show,” “Julia,” “The Flip Wilson Show,” “I Spy,” “Amos n’ Andy” and “The Mod Squad” would have had some Black commercials but there were none. But, in 1975, I did identify a number of commercials featuring Blacks that advertised on the Don Cornelius show, Soul Train.
You may recall Afro Sheen, Ultra Sheen, Sulfur 8, 7up and Panasonic running ads featuring Blacks in the ads. Interestingly, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen were owned by Chicago’s own Johnson Products, a Black-owned company at the time. It is worth noting that Johnson Products ranked as the largest Black-owned manufacturing company during the ‘70s and was the first minority firm to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange at that time. Also, while Afro Sheen, Ultra Shen and Sulfur 8 advertised exclusively to the Black market, 7up and Panasonic advertised to the general market.
In fact, I “dug up” an old Panasonic ad from the “Soul Train” show that featured a Black male advertising a cassette player and an 8-Track player. Just the mention of a cassette player and an 8-Track player must take you, back in the day.
I suspect that some of you are surprised with my mentioning the ‘70s when the above-mentioned ads appeared on television. The ‘70s was not that long ago. But, Black advertisements as well as Black faces in television programing was not prevalent at all, back then. You may recall how many of us would call everyone we knew whenever there was someone Black on television.
In 1963, as reported in the ad resource library adage.com, Lever Brothers advertising agency, at the urging of the Congress of Racial Equality, aired a television commercial for Wisk laundry detergent, featuring a Black child and a white child playing together. But, there was at least one earlier ad featuring Blacks; a television ad that appeared on television in 1948.
Most of you probably have not heard of Jax Beer. Well, in an online article, which was posted on March 31, 2016, titled, “1948: Jax Beer Airs One of the First African American Television Commercials,” this commercial was identified as one of the first in which Blacks appeared on television in a commercial. More importantly, as it relates to this column, the commercial featured all Blacks in what was identified as “Whistle Up A Party.” Keep in mind that this commercial appeared on television seven years after the Bulova Watch Company broadcasted the first television ad in the United States on July 1, 1941.
This was truly amazing, given the times, as it did not present stereotypical Blacks in demeaning roles as was the case with Blacks in print advertising. To view this commercial, simply google the name and year of the commercial. You will not see Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit and other buffoonery images as was typically the case, back in the day.
If you wish to fully examine Blacks in television ads over the years, a Google search will reveal many of these advertisements. You will learn that in 1986, Tylenol ran an advertisement featuring Blacks on television.
Around the same time, Wendy’s ran an ad featuring Black people. The year of 1986 must have been the year for Blacks in television commercials as Flip Wilson advertised Colgate Toothpaste.
Also, in the 1980s, some of you may recall seeing the young lady traveling on Greyhound bus to see here father for his 50th birthday. The words and tune if the jingle may have remained with you over the years, “Go Greyhound and Leave the Driving to Us.” Do you recall the 1970s Coca-Cola commercial featuring Gladys Knight and the Pips? It was well received.
In fact, some responses to this advertisement identified it as the coolest ad ever seen. Any memories of Colt 45 Beer featuring Billy Dee Williams? What about the Toughskins Jeans Advertisement? Are you familiar with this ad? You must know that McDonalds had numerous television advertisements that featured Black men, women boys and girls.
During his heyday, Bill Cosby was featured in many Coca-Cola ads as well as Jell-O. I know that the name Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson brings to mind his running through airports in the name of Hertz Rental Cars.
While I remember many of these advertisements, the one television advertisement featuring a Black person that is on the top of my list as my most favorite, involves a professional football player. If you were not around in 1979 when the Coca-Cola advertisement featuring “Mean” Joe Greene appeared on television, I want to tell you that it was a “real doozy.” It was a television commercial for the ages.
So, who was “Mean” Joe Greene? He was one of the most formidable defensive lineman in the National Football League and played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In a 60-second spot, Greene limps to the locker room after a hard-fought game. A little boy, watching as he struggles down the tunnel to the locker room, offers him his Coca-Cola. He accepts the drink after initially turning it down and with a single gulp he drinks down the Coke.
When it appeared that the boy will walk away empty-handed and heartbroken, Greene tosses his jersey and delivers the memorable and famous line, “Hey kid, catch.” You can watch this advertisement by going to Googling Mean Joe Greene and the Coca-Cola ad. For a number of you, I am certain that this heartwarming advertisement will become one of your favorite Black television ads of all time.
Blacks have appeared in advertising going back to the 1870s. Of course, these advertisements were in print and many were very racist. One of the most defamatory showed Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist leader, with his second wife who was white, taking a product called Sulphur Bitters to lighten her skin. Advertisements like this were prevalent, over the years.
So, as you reflect on this column and observe television advertisements in the weeks to come, reflect on where Black television advertisements have been, the road we have traveled and where we appear to be going. Notice how these advertisements have gone from simply catering to Blacks and now focus on attracting the general population.
Advertisements reflecting Blacks, in general, and Blacks in television advertisements, in particular, are what we see today because of hard work, due diligence, sacrifices and sweat and tears on the part of those that came before us, back in the day.