Black History Isn’t Just About February: Why Black Voices Matter in Advertising
After losing two jobs amid a pandemic, I decided to pivot and pursue a career in advertising.
Before taking a seat at the table, I despised the idea of working in a professional landscape with people who had little interest in those with lived experiences different than their own. I wondered: why is it that in an industry fueled by Black consumerism and Black culture were we rarely making the decisions?
Black people have been at the advent of creativity for generations.
To celebrate Black History every month, I decided to highlight Black people’s contributions to advertising from the top down.
The past two years have produced a surge of advertisements featuring Black people, and yet, the advertising industry is still only comprised of 6.6% Black employees. Despite low percentages, Black people have made major contributions to the advertising industry as leaders and pioneers. Simply put, we built the table.
at the Table
Black voices are not new to advertising. Black-owned advertising agencies have been around since the 1950s. Barbara Gardner Proctor and Vince Cullers were game-changers to the advertising industry. Despite the blatant racism they faced, Proctor and Cullers were among the greatest innovators and activists of their time.
Vince Cullers Advertising, Inc. was the first Black-owned advertising agency in the United States. When he returned from World War II, Cullers accepted an art director job at a marketing agency. Upon realizing that Cullers was Black, his employer rescinded the offer. That rejection inspired him to start his own agency, which eventually attracted a Fortune 500 client list, including the likes of Kellogg’s, Sears, the United Negro College Fund, Pizza Hut, and Johnson Products. VCA transformed representation in the media, and normalized Black faces in advertising. Cullers’ partnership with Johnson Products—best known for their iconic Afro Sheen— went on to produce the first nationally syndicated television program sponsored by a Black company ever—Soul Train.
Soul Train allowed every American and their momma to engage with Black culture without it first having been white-washed. Cullers’ ingenious work forever changed the face of media.
In the Mad Men era — a time in which Black people were rarely hired—Barbara Gardner Proctor founded Proctor & Gardner, the first Black woman-owned advertising agency, in 1970.
After being fired from an agency for standing up against an ad mocking the Civil Rights Movement, Proctor took a leap of faith and struck out on her own with no capital or executive experience—just the belief that advertising should evoke both quality and equality. Her agency carried out these values by hiring a diverse group of women and minorities as well as by creating dynamic ads that were approachable and groundbreaking while also telling inclusive stories about both women and the Black community.
Despite all that Proctor and Cullers contributed to the industry, advertisers to-this-day still present stereotypical ads that not only harm Black people but also profit off of our culture.
Cullers and Proctor lived in defiance and made room in an industry that held no space for them. As a Black woman finding her voice in advertising, seeing and hearing Black people has been a rarity. If we’ve been at the table, why aren’t there more of us?
at the Table
Annually, and in times of social turmoil, Black Americans lean on conventions like Black Out Day—only buying from Black-owned businesses—to make their voices heard by advertisers, brands, and platforms intentionally ignoring their contributions and their stories. If brands continue to ignore Black consumers and only pull out their “Black cards” when convenient, Black Out Day might become Blackout Year.
If advertising really wants to change, the industry must listen to and hire voices that accurately represent the people they’re trying to reach. In institutions of power, transformation happens from the top down. As a collective of advertisers, we must first be the change.
Black consumers are already at the table. Revenue and engagement are only consequences of genuine relationships—unmolded by stereotypes.
There is No Table Without Black Folx
Black people are more than the revenue they generate. Diverse representation and equitable employment of Black people make for a better society and culture. Black culture is the pinnacle of American culture. Still, we continue to be erased.
Representation is not just about seeing more Black people. It’s about properly compensating Black people and recognizing their contributions to the culture at large.
As a Black woman and creative, I want to live in a world where my creativity is not taken for granted—a world in which my voice is not detached from my body and given to someone who doesn’t look like me to make it more digestible. The content we consume shapes who we are and who we’re becoming. The absence of Black people in advertising and media is the absence of authentic culture, making it, at best, a facsimile of culture.
Black culture is American culture.
Ain't no table
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