Have Mercy! A history of African-American-Targeted Advertising. By Paul Smalera

A New Direction

In "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man," Henry Louis Gates writes, that many black Americans think that "the soft drink Tropical Fantasy is manufactured by the Ku Klux Klan and contains a special ingredient designed to sterilize black men." He then demolishes this and other conspiracy theories while recalling America's troubled racial history, and its hope of overcoming it. When his arrest and reconciliation rekindled that history, we thought of these 1970s ads, however contemporaneously clumsy, which represented corporate America's first broad attempts at dialogue with Afro-America.


The driver in this 1975McDonald's (MCD) ad is clearly "on the job." The truck, the spare tire behind the men, the clipboard all scream it. This is "targeted" advertising: usually created by different departments or agencies together to appeal to ethnic groups. In a 1999Brandweek article, an employee at one targeted agency tells of a supervisor who told him, "Your creative must be something that is ownable by us [African-Americans]. ... Otherwise, what's to stop the client from telling their general market agency. ‘Do the same spot, but do a version with an all-black cast and black music?'

Carver Day Camp Gettin’ Down

In the '70s, a change in the cultural climate led to the first real explosion of ethnically targeted advertising. Given how new the genre was, there were bound to be missteps like this one. One hopes there's another van out of frame nearby. "There's nothing more offensive than ‘trying to be down' with another culture in order to sell a product," according toBrandweek in 1999. "Consumers know when they're being had. We may think we're fooling them, but we're not."

Puttin’ Hot Sauce on It

Even ads that mimic "general market" campaigns are doctored, as this one probably was, throwing a "Have Mercy!" into the copy right after offering to "whip some cheese" on that Whopper. As the same Brandweek writer explains, "Whenever a new commercial or ad campaign is needed, the general market agency always gets first crack at it. Once the general market agency sells its campaign, targeted agencies are called in to do targeted versions of the general market work. Older black creatives refer to it as ‘puttin' hot sauce on it.' "

The Real Times

Most of the "general market"ads from Coca-Cola's "The Real Thing" campaign of the '70s feature scenes of romance, the beach, vintage automobiles, and racecars. This "targeted" ad features a family cookout-on the back porch of an apartment complex.

Be Natural

This Kotex ad is rare, in that while featuring an African-American model, there's no slang or allusion in the copy that otherwise distinguishes it as targeted advertising ...

Dig it?

... something that is rarely the case when it comes to this genre. It was in the climate of the early '70s, with the recent passages of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, that advertisers of fast food, tampons, soda, and other consumer goods first tackled targeted advertising on a large scale. But they were joining vice advertisers who had discovered the audience at least a generation prior.

The Neighbors

This 1962 Budweiser ad seems untargeted. Part of abroader campaign, it stands out precisely because there's nothing about this ad that doesn't resemble the others in the series other than the color of the men's skin. This approach was seldom used in the 1970s, as targeted ads came into vogue, especially in vice categories.

Hey Earl!

In fact, vice-related advertising is often the most heavily ethnically targeted. "A survey of billboards in St. Louis found twice as many billboards in African-American neighborhoods compared with white neighborhoods. Almost 60 percent of the billboards in the African-American neighborhoods advertised either tobacco or alcohol," found a study in Alcohol Health and Research World.

Kool Ain’t Cold

A recent study uncovered a 1973 document that showed that "Kools made a specific effort to market on buses and subways, since blacks disproportionately rely on public transit in most major cities, in hopes that Kool would 'cover the top 25 markets in terms of absolute Negroes.' "


In the time of the Pepsi President, it only makes sense that the companies that have been targeting African-Americans through advertising the longest, like McDonald's, would redouble their efforts. Indeed, McDonald's McCafé coffee bar has been heavily targetedto African-American consumers. The restaurant has even set up a Web site,, which promises, "like the unique African Baobab tree, which nourishes its community with leaves and fruit," to nourish the African-American community "with valuable programs and opportunities." And mochas.

Paul Smalera has written for Condé Nast Portfolio, The New York Times and The New York Observer among others. He blogs at true/slant.

Netjacked from Slate / The Big Money

Rescued by HighJive thanks homie!
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