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The Pepsi Revolution & My family in ads

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

It is not hyperbole to say that in the late 1940s Pepsi single-handedly changed the course of advertising and marketing history forever. It sounds like typical advertising puffery, but it’s not. It is also extremely likely that almost no one in the advertising business today (unless you work for Pepsi) knows this story.

In the 1930s, Pepsi was just one of a multitude of small-time cola brands competing against the Coca-Cola goliath. At the time, Pepsi was owned by the Loft Candy Company. Loft was interested in the brand mainly so it could be sold from the soda fountains of their candy stores. However, while all of the other cola brands were selling their 6-ounce bottles for a nickel, Pepsi charged the same nickel for a 12-ounce bottle. (Because Loft cared more about their fountain sales.) During the Great Depression, that was a monumental difference, especially among the poorest households and African Americans. This king-size value made enough of a difference in Pepsi’s success that in 1938 Pepsi was spun off as its own independent company.

But that’s still not the revolutionary story that I’m talking about. It’s only the preamble. In 1938, Walter S. Mack Jr., a politically connected, progressive Republican, New York businessman, became the first president of the newly independent Pepsi Company. One of the first things Mack did was successfully sue Coke for the right to call Pepsi a “cola.” And the Pepsi-Cola Company was born. Mack referred to himself as “an unrepentant capitalist and liberal” who enjoyed bucking the status quo. He told his board of directors that Pepsi had survived the Great Depression due to the brand’s popularity among loyal Negro customers who appreciated the value of the 12-ounce bottles. He intended to treat Negro customers as a consumer segment that was important to the company's future growth. Walter Mack and Pepsi intended to treat Black people as consumers, important consumers. No other American corporation of any size or significance had ever contemplated such a thing. It was literally unimaginable.

Mack began to set the program in motion in 1941; however, the onset of World War II pushed their marketing plans back. Even during the war, Walter Mack looked for ways to grow his company, especially among American Negroes. Because the U.S. Army only operated segregated canteens, (Canteens were club venues in cities across the country that provided off-duty servicemen with nights of dancing, entertainment, free food and nonalcoholic drinks, and even opportunities to hobnob with celebrities.) Pepsi opened three of its own fully integrated canteens that served thousands of Black and White servicemen during and after the war.

In 1947, Walter Mack hired Edward Boyd, a National Urban League staff member and placed him in charge of the brand-new program. Boyd hired a dozen African American salesmen who traveled the country tirelessly through the late 1940s and early 1950s, spreading the new gospel of Pepsi at Black churches, social clubs, schools, athletic events, barber shops, etc. Pepsi’s all-Black sales team endured taunts, insults, and threats from co-workers, competitors and the local KKK.

It was the simultaneous invention of multicultural marketing and grassroots marketing. The very first in-store display – which later became a newspaper and magazine ad – featured an attractive, young Black mother holding a six-pack of Pepsi while her son reached for one. In the background is the daughter and dad in a pressed white shirt and tie. A decidedly “normal” middle-class American family image. By the way, the young boy in the ad was Ron Brown, who would grow up to become the U.S. Commerce Secretary in the Clinton Administration. This was the very first national ad to treat African Americans as attractive, desirable consumers. This was revolutionary.

The American marketplace has never been the same since. Pepsi kicked ass and became an international soft drink giant and a peer and true rival to Coca-Cola. Other American corporations in every product category began to market their products to Black consumers.

In 1956, Vince Cullers, an art director at Ebony (the largest and most successful Black magazine in the country), launched America’s first Black advertising agency in Chicago, formalizing a new segment of the industry. One of the agency’s first ad campaigns was for Johnson Products, a Chicago-based Black hair care company. The agency’s first national ad campaign was for Kent Cigarettes. Tobacco companies were always happy to sell their products to Black consumers; at the time, those consumers were happy to oblige. Today, African Americans have a lower incidence of smoking than the general population in spite of the relentless targeted advertising.

* * *

When he was a young man, my dad was a professional photographer. He did a lot of fashion photography, capturing beautiful Black women models in stylish dresses and big fancy hats. Back then, you never saw these models in the mainstream fashion magazines, but the newsstands in Harlem and Chicago and other cities around the country were filled with Negro publications (Ebony, Jet, Sepia, Tan, Hue, Color, Jive) that featured and celebrated Black beauty and style. These were the kinds of pictures my father took. And, I’m told, he was very good at it. My mom, before she began her career in business, was a fashion model. And from time to time, they worked together.

Years ago, while rummaging through my parents’ basement, I found what is known in the retail marketing business as a riser card. It’s a cardboard display piece that’s roughly three feet tall and two feet wide and has an advertising image promoting a product for sale in the store. It draws the customer to purchase the product. Beer and soda brands use them all the time. That very first Pepsi ad I mentioned was on a riser card. This particular card was for Ballantine Beer and featured five beautiful African American models enjoying the beer. Ballantine, which has been around since 1840, was at its height in the 1940s and 1950s. By then, it was twice the size of Anheuser Busch and was one of the largest privately held corporations in America.

The ad, which may have been shot by my dad (I’m not sure) included my mom, Rita Robinson, as one of the models. One of the very early ads to feature Black models for a major national brand, featured my mom. My beautiful, amazing mom. Another model who was in the ad was a friend of hers, Audrey Smaltz. Audrey later left modeling not long afterward to become a fashion runway mogul and CEO of The Ground Crew, one of the biggest fashion-show stage management companies in the business.

Modeling was only a temporary phase in my mom’s career as well. She enjoyed it for a few years, but her dreams were focused on the corporate world, going to an office and doing important things. And, in addition to raising a family, that’s exactly what she did. But in 1966, when my mom was a rising young professional at Time Incorporated, the parent company of Time Magazine, Life, and Sports Illustrated; she received a phone call from someone from her former modeling days. They were creating an ad campaign for a “bigtime national brand” that would be targeted to Black consumers. The campaign would feature real people; attractive young, Black professionals, and authentic aspirational figures enjoying the product in their everyday life. They asked my mom if she would be interested. The product was Coca-Cola.

“Enjoying the product in their everyday life” meant shooting the ad in our home. So, one day an entire production crew showed up and took over our house. It was like a tornado had arrived and just hovered over our house. The concept of the ad was that my mom was a successful businesswoman and a successful mom, and of course, Coca-Cola made it all possible. The ad was shot right in our living room, sitting on the floor in front of our fireplace. Mom (while holding a bottle of Coke) was playing chess with my older brother Michael, while I sat observing the game. I was nine years old at the time, and I must say that I think I was absolutely adorable. We looked like the perfect, upwardly mobile Negro family, which was exactly the point. I have another older brother, David, who was not in the ad layout, so I have no idea where he was that day. I think maybe my dad took him to the movies as a consolation.

Here is the headline and copy from the ad:

Rita Robinson: She leads the two-career life.

With Coke to help her all the way. A successful publishing executive at Time, Inc., she’s also a devoted wife and mother of three boys. Both careers require equal time. And yet, Mrs. Robinson manages with ease. Of course, she always has plenty of Coca-Cola on hand to help keep her going.

The ad ran in Ebony and a whole bunch of other Black publications in 1966. So, I was in the ad business even before the age of ten. And apparently, it stuck with me.

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