the birth of targeted advertising

Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

I just heard a really interesting episode of the Planet Money that I thought I would pass along. It concerned Tom Burrell, the first African-American adman in Chicago. As a young man In 1961, he got a job in the mailroom at an advertising agency. Even as a mail clerk, he was one of the only black people in advertising, but he was able to work his way up to writing copy. He came up with some well-known ads and built a good reputation for himself. When he reached a certain level of success, he began to branch out into help companies that wanted to advertise to African Americans. But the one-size-fits-all approach to advertising campaigns that many companies then wanted, Burrell believed, was not going to work with black audiences. It was not just a question of placing the ads in Ebony instead of Time, but of writing entirely different ads. The reason, said Burell in a slogan that became his mantra, is that "black people are not dark-skinned white people." Their different history, culture and situation is likely to mean that a product or idea can mean something very different to them than it might to those of another race. An example from the podcast was one Burell mentioned: a campaign that read "1856 was a good year for beer." This was the year the company was founded. But what it was not was a good year for black Americans, most of whom were still living under slavery. There are several other interesting examples of how the same pitch might work for white audiences but not for black ones.

Burell eventually started his own firm, which is a leader today in multicultural advertising. The company constructs ads that articulate what Burrell calls "positive realism." This is the portrayal of honest black experience without the negative images and stereotypes that are often appear in popular media.

The podcast gave me a lot to think about; you can find it here. A series of award-winning McDonald's ads, developed by Burrell Communications in 2010, can be found here. (At the end of the video is a spot for Miller Lite that was developed by a different company. It received honorable mention that year.)