Moments In Black Advertising History: 1970s - Now

Moments in Black Advertising History: 1970s-Now

By Kayla Johnson


In the 1970s, the American advertising industry began to move away from its long standing habit of using African Americans as props. Following the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, big name corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Coca-Cola saw an opportunity to broaden their consumer base while keeping up with the times by increasing diversity in their ads.

Though seemingly a step in the right direction, many agencies did a poor job representing this target demographic. Misguided and extensive use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in vintage ads are clear examples of just how little agencies understood about Black consumers and how to appeal to them. Charlton McIlwain, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, stated he views these ads as “the outcome of [advertisers] trying to do the right thing, but not necessarily knowing what that meant.”

Advertisers understood that the Black community was a profitable consumer base. They understood that Black consumers were more likely to purchase a product if its advertising reflected them and their experiences. Targeted advertising was a solution that made sense. It was these advertisers’ lack of understanding of the Black consumer that led them to hit a wall and allow Black advertisers to step in.

The Rise of Black-Oriented Agencies

Many Black professionals found themselves opening Black-oriented agencies through the mid-1960s to late-1970s in response to the lack of effective advertising targeted at Black consumers. At the time, advertising was mostly aimed at a mass market—which essentially meant white people. When advertisers did try to reach a Black audience, their campaigns carried racist undertones and stereotypes, exposing their overall ignorance of Black cultures. The clear racial separation in ad targeting is what sparked the rise of Black agencies, and this de facto segregation would eventually result in the limitation of the overall business potential of these agencies. By becoming the “experts” of this demographic, Black agencies would become confined to being considered an “economic detour from the general market for advertising services.”

For decades, Black agencies were denied access to lucrative general marketing accounts. The 15 largest historically Black-owned advertising firms were established between the early ‘70s and late ‘80s, a handful of which had been designated to craft messages targeting the Black consumer market for major firms. Many aspired to work in the general market to not only portray Black people properly in ads but to prove they could compete with mainstream agencies. These firms would eventually sell white advertisers on the true potential and power of Black consumers.

Break Barriers in the Mainstream

There are two Black agencies that are widely recognized for having grown into significant forces in the advertising industry: Burrell Communications Group and UniWorld Group Inc.

The former was founded by Tom Burrell, who became the first Black person in Chicago advertising working as a mailroom clerk in 1961. After a decade of learning the business and moving through the ranks of multiple ad agencies, Burrell McBain Advertising (now Burrell Communications Group) was born in 1971. Burrell was clear in his intentions of changing the way advertisers appealed to Black consumers. He pioneered what we recognize today as targeted advertising, producing ads aimed at Black people that incorporate elements of Black culture. He became famous for his signature phrase, “I had to convince clients to understand that Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

The agency soon began producing television commercials for two of its biggest clients, McDonald’s and The Coca-Cola Company. These commercials featured Black people and tapped into the culture by incorporating more authentic images of the Black experience. “McDonald’s and Coca-Cola were the greatest users of television advertising,” Burrell says. “That was so fortuitous for us, because the thing that put Burrell on the map was not being first, but being the first to break through television advertising.”

Unprepared to lose a market share battle against McDonald’s in the infamous “Burger Wars,” America’s second ranking burger chain, Burger King, sought the assistance of Byron Lewis, president and CEO of UniWorld Group, Inc. The burger franchise let go several lead ads agencies in the ‘80s for failing to execute consistent, sustainable marketing campaigns. UniWorld had the opportunity to head Burger King’s national interim campaign while they searched for a full-time agency.

In 1983, UniWorld began its reign in successfully handling Burger King’s marketing targeted at the Black community. Roughly 10 years later, Lewis would discover that he and his team would be pitted against Saatchi & Saatchi, a massive global media firm. Lewis pulled his best people together brainstorming slogans and ideas for weeks until they landed upon this tagline: “We may not be No. 1, it just tastes that way.” This tagline and complementary presentation won UniWorld a $170 million account —the largest general market campaign ever awarded to a Black-owned agency. “We proved that we could compete with mainstream agencies and be successful,” Lewis told Black Enterprise of this barrier-breaking milestone. 

Changes in Recent Decades

By the 1990s, large majority firms began developing “urban consumer-focused” boutiques and merging with Black-owned firms. Though these firms had proven they stood a chance against their mainstream competitors, many began to work as “ethnic specialists” for large holding companies. In 1999 Burrell sold 49% to Publicis Groupe and WPP Group plc took a 49% share of UniWorld.

What happened to these two widely successful Black firms is a result of decades of cultural and economic change. “Black agencies are still around but they’re under a new identity known as ‘multicultural.’” says Lewis Williams, Partner and Creative Officer at Burrell. The climate of the market has changed dramatically and more brands want to align their strategy with an increasingly diverse audience. 

With the advancement of technology and rise of social media over the last two decades, Black consumers have been able to vocalize their criticism and identify their needs to these large companies. Through social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, consumers have had a simplified means of engaging with brands whether it be praise of a campaign or leading boycotts for racially insensitive marketing. Consumer power has been amplified tremendously due to social media and advertisers cannot blatantly ignore their requests without potentially damaging their reputation or revenue. 

A recent Nielsen’s report titled, “It’s in the Bag: Black Consumers’ Path to Purchase,” records that with nearly 50 million people in the U.S., Black consumers spend $1 trillion a year. The report also found that spending by consumers is especially influenced by advertising. If companies want Black consumers to spend with them, they must commit to being consistent and authentic in their targeted messaging. Even decades later, large advertisers are still in need of guidance in identifying how to do just that.


Kayla Johnson is an Atlanta-based writer, content creator, and digital marketer with a passion for diverse representation in media and entertainment. Connect with her on socials @kaylabriana_ on Twitter and @__kaylabriana on Instagram.

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