Commercials: Crossing the Color Line

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A few months ago, Negro Actress Zaida Coles auditioned for a TV commercial and landed a job pitching a new Bristol-Myers cleanser. Or so she thought. After further reflection, the advertising agency turned her down—not because she was black, but because she was not black enough.

Like many commercial makers nowadays, the agency wanted a darker-skinned Negro so that there would be no mistaking the integrated nature of its advertisements. Threatened with boycotts and scolded by civil rights groups, sponsors have responded by doubling the number of integrated commercials in the past year to 5% of the total number of ads made. Rightly noting that this figure is still too low, General Foods has set for itself an even higher quota of 15%. The search for black talent has become so intense, in fact, that one agency is offering its employees a $50 finder's fee. This prompted Negro Leader James Farmer to observe: "I don't think we ought to let them have a Negro that cheaply. I think instead we ought to start ourselves a rent-a-Negro company."

Paranoid Profession The stirring of Madison Avenue's social conscience is still tentative and, to say the least, tardy. Appraising his industry's role in the "great moral issue of our time," Ogilvy & Mather Chairman John Elliott Jr. confesses that "our record is not even average. We bring up the rear. That is a hell of a position for people who consider themselves problem solvers, pacesetters and molders of public opinion." It is also a hell of a position for businessmen. Last year, Negroes spent $30 billion on consumer items, or 6% of the national total, and as Louise Hexter, account executive for Norman, Craig & Kummel, says, "It is utterly absurd to exclude them from your advertising." Nonetheless, admen are proceeding with extreme caution because, says Mrs. Hexter, "we're scared to death. We're scared of anything that will cause adverse publicity."

In the past, admen have shunned non-white performers in commercials for fear of alienating Southern viewers and attaching an "ethnic identification" to a product. What white Mississippian would want to drink a beer that is praised by a Negro? There was also the feeling that the sight of a black face would destroy the carefully contrived fantasy world of the TV ad; the sponsors were worried that the viewer would suddenly exclaim, "Hey, there's a Negro!"—and miss the message. Recently, however, a test commercial featuring a Negro mother talking about Pampers, a disposable diaper, showed that 60% of the viewers in the South did not recall the actress's race. Still, some Southern-based sponsors—among them several tobacco companies—argue that "we're salesmen, not sociologists." They have yet to integrate their commercials, while others make a separate set of white-only ads for distribution in the South. For the most part, integrated ads pitch mass-consumer items like beer and gasoline but not such "white-oriented products" as hair tints and certain cosmetics.

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