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"Mad Men" in Black: African Americans in the Twentieth Century U.S. Advertising Industry

In the following article University of Oregon historian Daniel Pope briefly outlines the history of African Americans in the Advertising Industry since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Paul Kinsey, a young white copywriter at a prominent advertising agency in 1961 dates an African American woman and even accompanies her South to register voters. His coworkers find the relationship troubling and bewildering. Their treatment of the woman ranges from condescension to blatant hostility. With the exception of a few white ethnic “creative” staff, the agency is solidly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

At a board meeting, the head of a Madison Avenue advertising agency collapses and dies. Stunned, the board members inadvertently elect the token African American, Putney Swope, to run the agency. Renaming the firm Truth and Soul Advertising, Swope and a ragtag gang create outrageous but appealing advertisements that keep viewers glued to their TV sets--but unwilling to tear themselves away to go out and consume. In the end, the United States government embarks on a campaign to destroy the agency as a subversive threat.

These two fictional vignettes, the first from the television series Mad Men, the second from the 1969 movie Putney Swope, suggest the degree of change (and the resistance to change) in the position of African Americans in the advertising business in the 1960s. That decade, as we shall see, was a turning point, but the turn was incomplete and problems of exclusion and discrimination remain four decades later.

Advertising has long played a central role in American business and culture, with estimated 2010 expenditures over $160 billion. The American advertising industry’s relationship with African Americans has long been troubled. Until a generation ago, advertisements rarely depicted African Americans in anything but menial positions or demeaning stereotypes.  Although portrayals have changed in recent decades, African Americans are significantly underrepresented in the ad industry’s professional and

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