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The birth of Black marketing

October is Black History Month in the UK, and we're looking back at the history of Black marketing and those who shaped it.

When you Google Black people in marketing, the results are disheartening. Even today it is estimated that only around 6.6% of marketing professionals in the US are Black, this is not even close to proportional. You can only imagine then, how hard it was to get into marketing as a Black person back in the 60s.

It is this that makes the work of legendary marketer Tom Burrell all the more inspiring. I’m ashamed to admit I’d not heard of Burrell before, despite having a degree in media and culture (the whole reason for Black History Month is due to the whitewashing of mainstream education after all) it’s absurd to me that his name is not on every marketing curriculum.

Tom Burrell changed advertising forever, he was instrumental in creating marketing for the Afro-American consumer, whilst fighting for his place in the industry harder than any white colleague had to. As one of the first Black people in marketing, Burrell made it his mission to redress the cultural balance in marketing to Black consumers.

Black is Beautiful

America was going through a period of cultural change in the 60s and 70s, decades of racism and oppression in American culture was being challenged for the first time. The Black is Beautiful movement fought to change the long-held belief that Black people must integrate into white culture, instead, Black Americans should celebrate their own culture and create economic power of their own. Black is Beautiful, and the differences in culture should be embraced, not brushed under the carpet and neglected.

Burrell credits this movement with creating the landscape for him to later build his company on. Once people started to accept and embrace Black culture, Burrell was able to target this demographic in advertising – something no one else was doing.

As Burrell said himself, “There’s no such thing as the general market. If you’re not targeting, you’re not marketing.”

Breaking into the industry

Breaking into an industry that was almost entirely white was undeniably a challenge. Burrell learned he was suited to working in advertising after taking a career aptitude test in school. He made it his mission to tell everyone he met of this goal, and it was this strategy that landed him his first role in the industry.

Being a Black person in advertising was virtually unheard of at the time, in Chicago at least, the only exception seemed to be if you were working for a Black publication such as Ebony Magazine. It was a friend of a friend that worked at Ebony who heard that Wade Advertising Agency was looking for a Black person to work in their mailroom. They instantly thought of Burrell.

Despite starting out in the mailroom, Burrell always dressed the part. In a double-breasted suit, dressing for the role you want, not the role you have, worked for Burrell when within six months of joining the company he was able to pitch to a director and land himself a role as a marketing copywriter.

After a few more years in the industry, Burrell broke away from the mainstream advertising agencies and along with partner Emmett McBain, created Burrell McBain Advertising in 1971. The company would later become Burrell Communications, which is still running today. They crafted a full-service advertising agency specializing in promoting products to the, then still largely ignored, African-American consumer.

Recognizing the Black Consumer

Coining the phrase ‘Black people are not dark-skinned white people’ Burrell started a shift in advertising to reflect Black consumers, where they had previously been ignored.

The phrase is stark, it quips at the ignorance of marketers to think that the same commercial would appeal to everyone in the same way. Burrell believed we should understand and embrace cultural differences and market to them. It just might work.

At Burrell and McBain Advertising Agency, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola were two of their first clients. Burrell and McBain convinced the brand giants that they could create television marketing that would appeal to the African American audience, without offending the white audience.

They ultimately found that not only was their content not offending a white audience, it was also in some cases more effective than the version created for the white audience originally. One example is the Coca-Cola Street Song ad of 1976, creating A Capella song to praise Coca-Cola, it was instantly a classic.

Coca Cola Street Song 1976

The ads were so influential in changing American culture forever, that today The Library of Congress houses the Coca-Cola adverts created by Burrell. The ads were a completely fresh take on what people were used to seeing in the media, but it reflected real life and appealed to consumers.

Burrell Communications still create ads for their original clients of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, amongst other huge names, you can view a selection of their more recent ads on their website.

The cultural differences

There was more to it than just the top-level culture differences such as music genres or fashion. Centuries of racism and discrimination had led to different mindsets and behaviors amongst Black people compared to their white counterparts. Burrell was able to recognize this resulted in a different type of consumer behavior and capitalize on this.

In Tom Burrell’s book ‘Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority’ he shares research that Burrell Communications undertook in the 70s and 80s. It’s not easy reading.

The research showed that Black preference for high-end status brands was driven by needing to compensate for feelings of low self-esteem. A pattern of lopsided spending to savings ratio was driven by the need for immediate gratification based on uncertainty about their future. Black people were spending more in every category related to cleanliness, such as laundry, car and household cleaning products, and personal hygiene items to compensate for being historically stereotyped as dirty. The genesis of all of these behaviors can be linked back to slavery, it’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s history and it cannot be glossed over.

Burrell took what was a hostile and ignorant industry and changed it. He was able to educate the advertising industry, which in turn would educate society by infiltrating popular culture. By tapping into the commercial side of the issue he was able to create the space and then dominate it.


We can see today the impact Burrell’s work has had on the advertising industry, not to mention the many people he has inspired. The latest work by Burrell Communications is true to the original mission, whilst keeping in line with modern-day culture. Burrell stepped down from his company in 2004 and now focuses on being an author and lecturer on media and popular culture. Burrell has won many industry awards throughout his career and his book is also credited as one of the most influential of all time by Ebony magazine, his title of advertising mogul is very much earned.

“Sometimes when you start talking to people about race and differences, implied in that is some kind of subordination, so I had to convince them that you can be different and equal, and that there are cultural differences that should be part of advertising aimed at a black cultural group, such as music.” – Tom Burrell

Racism, discrimination, and unequal representation are still very present today. Whilst we have come a long way from when Burrell began his career, there’s still a good way to go. As marketers we must look at the different cultures we have in our society and think about if we are reflecting that in our content, and if not, we must make changes to do so. Marketing is more than just selling a product; it has the power to influence popular culture and society – Burrell proved that. He also showed the industry that representation is a smart commercial decision, as well as the right thing to do. When we create an ad campaign, we need to remember that it comes with social responsibility too.

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