Black Advertising: A Look at the History and Challenges

In the late 20th century, with the development of multicultural advertising, most major companies hired black-owned agencies to create ads that were based on the African American experience. Vince Cullers Advertising, founded by Vince Cullers in 1956, was the first black agency in the United States. Cullers, inspired by the growing civil rights movement, used his artistic talent to run the agency with his wife, who was in charge of the administration. Together, they worked with brands such as Johnson Products and Kellogg's.

Advertising has a long history of being used to maintain white power and profits while marginalizing black lives. This is still evident today in the lack of diversity in the advertising industry itself. To find out why, I did fieldwork through internship programs at three major advertising agencies in New York City. I found three related issues that are likely to contribute to the problematic and continuing lack of black advertising managers.

First, there is a lack of mentorship opportunities for black employees. Second, qualifications for entry-level positions in advertising can be lax and subjective; it's about whether a candidate feels appropriate to the culture rather than objective skills or experiences. Third, advertising employees often recommend their friends for vacant positions, which can save the agency the expense of a headhunter and provide the added advantage of a familiar office colleague, but also makes the workplace racially homogeneous. To dismantle white supremacy within advertising, more data is needed to hold advertising agencies accountable.

Last year, neither large industrial groups nor the 4A nor the American Advertising Federation bothered to track diversity statistics in their sector. Meanwhile, as protests continue and brands jump on the bandwagon, mostly white advertising agencies continue to hire predominantly white people on the basis of favors, adjustment and friendship. In 1929, the Buy Where You Can Work or Don't Buy Where You Can't Work marketing campaign encouraged black consumers to buy only from companies that hire black employees. For decades, these revolutionary publications were the only place where African Americans could find stories about their own community, representing wealthy black members of society.

The industry simply isn't devoting the energy needed to support and activate black talent in advertising. To make real change happen, transparency of diversity data is needed from agency leaders and more data is needed to hold them accountable. Netflix's first black woman in a senior management role, Saint John has had a career that any marketer would aspire to. To make sure that black lives are not marginalized anymore within advertising industry, it is important for companies to create an environment where everyone feels included and respected regardless of their race or background.

Companies should also focus on creating mentorship opportunities for black employees and make sure that entry-level positions are based on objective skills or experiences rather than subjective criteria.