Commercials: Crossing the Color Line

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Idyllic Suburb. Those advertisers who have crossed the color line are now confronted with a new problem: how to portray the Negro. Self-conscious to a fault, integrated commercials never show a Negro as a heavy or in a menial position. Nor are blacks ever afflicted with bad breath or body odor. Kool cigarettes, for example, casts a Negro actor as a bright young trial lawyer; Viceroy casts another as a bright young stockbroker. Schaefer beer has a junior executive type who plays hand ball at the club with a white friend, who throws his arm around his shoulder as they stroll off to a classy cocktail lounge.

One Crest toothpaste commercial shows a pert black housewife bidding on antiques at an auction that is in a presumably wealthy white neighborhood; in another, a black science teacher lectures white parents on what to do to keep Junior's teeth bright. In toy commercials, white, Negro and Oriental children frolic together in an idyllic suburban setting that exists only in some copywriter's imagination. In Ad-Land, there is no discrimination between whites and nonwhites, at least in one sense: both are treated unrealistically.

The basic question, as Negro Actor Ossie Davis states it, is "Who interprets the Negro to the American? Basically, it has been done by the whites." As a result, says a Negro marketing consultant, D. Parke Gibson, "integrated advertising can only change the whites' image of Negroes. It cannot change the Negroes' image of themselves." Thus, says Gibson, the reaction of the black community to integrated ads is "neutral" and has little or no effect on their buying patterns.

Cop-Out. According to Hollywood Talent Agent Bill Cunningham, the new Negro stereotype created by TV commercials derives at least in part from the notion that white buyers "won't go for actors who have very Negroid features. What we all see are the very attractive Negroes who, if you bleached their skins white, you'd think were Caucasian." Adds one agency talent director: "If they sound like Negroes, they haven't got a chance. They have to look like Negroes and sound like white people."

The easiest way to avoid the problems of portrayal is what Negro Actor Robert Hooks calls the "copout: Put the Negroes in the background—blurred and slightly out of focus—and show them for just a split second." Indeed, despite the trend toward integrated ads, the agencies are often too reluctant to let the Negro step front and center. In one study of 8,279 ads shown over a three-week period late last year, only 199 contained nonwhite performers, and of that number just 16 had lead or speaking roles. By showing a few black faces on the fringe of a party scene, says Urban League Director Whitney Young, "the admen think they've done their bit, and the public reacts by assuming that the problem is solved. It's important that blacks are used more frequently in ads because they serve to educate the masses of viewers that black people, like themselves, have an important role in American life. The situation was awful, is better, and has to get better."

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