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Season Five.
"Diversity in Advertising"

Airs Saturday June 18th and Thursday June 23rd, 2011.

This week, The Age of Persuasion looks at Diversity in Advertising. We'll trace the emergence of the minority market, the failure of Madison Avenue to recognize the spending power of that growing consumer base, and the struggles that people of colour had to be acknowledged as valued consumers. We'll also feature the first ads aimed at minorities, the first minority spokespeople, and the pioneers who broke ground.

It's a story that parallels the fight for equality, and how advertising played a critical role in civil rights.

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All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.

The star of this 1933 movie was Claude Rains.

But he only had one scene on camera, at the very end of the movie, for a few seconds.

It was called "The Invisible Man."

Rains plays the entire film wrapped in bandages and wearing dark glasses. When he wasn't wearing the bandages, he was invisible.

The movie, based on an H.G. Welles novel, was about a scientist who discovers the secret of invisibility, but the drug he took cannot be reversed, and he is left stranded as an invisible man. His condition eventually drives him to madness.

Twenty years later, writer Ralph Waldo Ellison wrote a book titled, "Invisible Man."

Invisible Man book cover.jpg

It had nothing, and everything, to do with the H.G. Welles novel.

Invisible Man is narrated by an unnamed African American man, whose successful search for identity ends with the realization that he is invisible to the white world.

"I am an invisible man," he says. "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

That refusal to see certain people has a chapter in the history of advertising, too.

For decades, Madison Avenue created no advertising aimed at minorities.

Even though those ethnic groups were growing at a remarkable rate and wielding billions of dollars of spending power.

It was almost as if they were invisible.

As the advertising industry began to mature in the 1920s, it settled on one overriding strategy. Namely, to develop a large, single "mass market" for their goods.

It led advertising great Albert Lasker to say, "We are making a homogenous people out of a nation of immigrants."

But that mass-market strategy left out a very big, and increasingly lucrative, group of consumers:

Visible minorities.

As early as 1920, the African-American population was spending $1 billion dollars on consumer goods, yet they remained invisible to Madison Avenue.

This issue went deeper than just a lost revenue opportunity for advertisers.

It was profoundly important to the African-American people.

As writer Jason Chambers says in his wonderfully researched book titled, "Madison Avenue and the Color Line" - blacks wanted recognition, and a key part of that acknowledgment lay in their status as consumers.

Consumption became a key aspect of citizenship, because a positive depiction of blacks as consumers was symbolic evidence of their accepted status in society. The respect they sought as consumers paralleled greater civil rights.

Because no advertising was aimed at the black population, it was a daily reminder of their forced exclusion from the American Dream.

After the first World War, most imagery of blacks depicted them as cooks, porters or agricultural labourers.

Aunt Jemima ad.jpg

Plymouth ad.jpg


Pabst ad.jpg

When the Supreme Court codified segregation in the Plessy vs Ferguson ruling of 1896, it forced African-Americans to establish a society outside the mainstream.

They created their own grocery stores, barbershops, banks, churches and newspapers.

It also transformed them into a compact, measurable consumer target group. By 1940, the black population had reached 13 million, and had discretionary spending power of almost $2 billion dollars.

But still, advertisers ignored the numbers.

By 1940, the buying power of Black America topped $10 billion.

But the market still remained invisible to Madison Avenue.

In response to that lack of attention, John H. Johnson launched Ebony Magazine in 1945.


When the 1950 census was released, it showed the African-American population had grown 17% in the last 10 years and income had grown 300%, which led to a dramatic rise in home ownership and the purchase of household goods.

As the African-American consumer began to get some respect from advertisers in the pages of black magazines, it was still difficult in mainstream mediums.

Nat King Cole became the first African-American to host his own television show in 1956:

But eventually the main sponsor pulled out, and NBC struggled to find another national advertiser, even though black buying power now topped $19 billion a year.

Cole pointed out that his ratings were good, and his sponsors didn't lose sales in any region of the country.

The problem, of course, was that major advertisers were afraid that being seen sponsoring the show would lose more white customers than they would gain among blacks.

But a revolution was brewing on Madison Avenue.

It was a creative revolution - driven by diversity.

As Stephen Fox notes in his book, "The Mirror Makers," advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach drove the first real wedge into the staunchly Wasp Madison Avenue.

Wit was the signature style of DDB. As Fox notes, it was "self deprecation from strength" - which had its roots in Jewish humour:

DDB also broke down barriers for other multicultural talent, and welcomed ethnic groups like Italian and Greek art directors.

By 1969, minority employment climbed up to 10.5% at the top 15 agencies.

The face of advertising was beginning to change.

In the mid 60s, comedian Bill Cosby wondered if becoming a spokesperson for a product might get him more exposure.

So he had his agent approach White Owl Cigars, because he liked their tagline, "We're going to get you."

Cosby's offer caught the cigar company management by surprise, as they had never considered an African-American spokesperson. But, White Owl eventually approved the idea, and hired Cosby:

In 1968, a new TV series premiered called "Julia."

Singer Diahann Carroll starred as a widowed mother who worked in a non-stereotypical role as a nurse in a doctor's office. It ran for three seasons.

When the 70s arrived, the complexion of prime time television changed substantially.

The success of series like The Jefferson's, Sanford & Son, the Flip Wilson Show, Good Times and Roots opened the doors to other minorities:

Chico and the Man, starring Freddie Prinze, was the first sitcom to be set in a Mexican-American neighbourhood, with Prinze playing a Hispanic who works for a cantankerous white owner of an East-LA garage.

In 1975, Ricardo Gonzalo Pedro Montalbán became the spokesman for Chrysler:

By 1985, the term "mass media" had become a relic of the past.

In 2003, Hispanics became America's largest minority group, surpassing African-Americans for the first time, with a population today of 48 million. Their buying power is estimated to be over $1 trillion dollars, larger than the entire economies of all but 14 countries in the world, and is expected to grow by 50% in the next five years. African-Americans are on track to spend over $1 trillion this year.

In Canada, the largest minority group is South Asians, which surpassed the Chinese in the last census in 2006. South Asia is defined predominantly as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka.

The ethnic market in Canada has disposable income of over $76 billion dollars, and is made up of 223 distinct groups. Eleven of which have populations of over one million.

That was Hockey Night in Canada - Punjabi Edition. The broadcasts are so popular now, that it's turned the hosts into celebrities.

But still, the amount of advertising created for, and featuring, visible minorities doesn't match their demographic heft.

Maybe the most staggering proof of that will come in the year 2050. By that time, according to demographic projections, ethnic groups will account for over 50% of the North American population.

The minority will finally become the majority.