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Before we were consumers

From the very beginning, Black people were always in advertising. The only difference – the whole difference – was that the advertising was not created by us, and it was not created for us.

Advertisements in colonial America were most frequently announcements of goods on hand, but notably in this early period, goods on hand included notices of slave sales or appeals for the capture of escaped slaves. This persisted until the end of the Civil War. In fact, the popularity and diversity of slave ads during this time is quite remarkable. There were ads from slave brokers, much like modern day stockbrokers or real estate agents, selling groups of a dozen slaves or so, enabling buyers to select just what they needed. There were ads from entrepreneurs who had invested in the wholesale slave trade, announcing the presence of their ship in the harbor, newly arrived from Sierra Leone, with more than one hundred slaves on board. There were ads for estate sales of hapless farmers and plantation owners who may not have had any children to pass their property to. Slave advertising ran the gamut from five-line classified entries to full-page notices with elaborate typeface and illustrations.

Have you ever seen ads for merchants offering to pay top dollar to buy your used car? Well, in colonial and antebellum America, there were ads from slave brokers offering top dollar to buy your used Negroes. They will match any offer! And if you couldn’t afford to buy a slave – maybe you were just starting out – there were plenty of ads featuring Negroes for rent. Who knew?

And based on the sheer abundance of advertising for runaway slaves, this was apparently a constant problem. I have seen hundreds of these ads. Most ads promised a $20 reward for the return of a runaway. Even the rich, famous and powerful were not immune to the embarrassment and inconvenience of runaway slaves. According to an advertisement posted in a New Hampshire newspaper.

There is now living, in the borders of the town of Greenland, New Hampshire, a runaway slave of Gen. Washington, at present supported by the county of Rockingham.”

Ona Judge was a servant of Martha Washington who ran away when she learned that she was about to be given as a wedding present to Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter.

The advertising was not created by us, and it was not created for us, but we were always in advertising.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I have seen some ads that were directed toward people of color. These were very different and were quite important in their own right. One of the advertisements that particularly caught my interest was an ad created and posted by a Boston abolitionist group in April of 1851. This ad was a response to the Fugitive Slave Act, a new law passed by the United States Congress six months earlier on September 18, 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the Great Compromise of 1850. The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also made the federal government responsible for finding and returning escaped slaves. Here is some of what the Boston ad said:


COLORED PEOPLE OF BOSTON, ONE & ALL, You are hereby respectfully CAUTIONED and advised to avoid conversing with the Watchmen and Police Officers of Boston. For the recent ORDER OF THE MAYOR & ALDERMEN, they are empowered to act as KIDNAPPERS and Slave Catchers…

As a matter of context, it is helpful to understand that in the colonial and antebellum south, local police forces were created specifically as “slave patrols” with the principal function of tracking and capturing all those runaway slaves featured in the runaway ads. In the north, local police forces were primarily private, for-profit operations designed to protect the private property of merchants and the wealthy. Throughout history, local police forces in both the south and the north have been used – either directly or indirectly – as instruments of racism and white supremacy. But that is getting us a bit off-topic.

* * *

After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, advertising the buying, renting, selling or recapturing of enslaved people went away completely. Advertising went in “a different direction.”

As a bi-product of the industrial revolution and the mass-production and distribution of goods, the post-reconstruction era of the 1870s and 1880s saw the birth of modern advertising in America, the promotion of branded consumer products. N.W. Ayer and J. Walter Thompson were two of the earliest advertising agencies and produced some of the earliest national ads. Prior to 1900 (and for a while thereafter), advertising was dominated by just three industries; food products, soap and cleaning products and tobacco products. And in all three industries, Blacks were an integral part of the advertising message.

Blacks in America were not a customer base for the products of these companies. Heck. That was not considered even for a second. The very idea was ridiculous. The majority of Black people still alive at that time had been born into enslavement and servitude. Emancipation was not that long ago. So why then did these great big companies and their national brands choose – again and again – to use Black people in their advertising? The simple answer is that Black people were a highly entertaining – and reliable – way for companies to sell their products to white American households.

One of the biggest and earliest advertising mascots were the Gold Dust Twins; a (racist caricature) drawing of two Black toddlers, naked, bald heads and wearing jungle tutus that read “Gold Dust”. Gold Dust Soap Powder was an all-purpose soap product marketed by Lever and was a leading brand of soap powder in America (and internationally marketed by Unilever) for over 60 years. The Gold Dust Twins were featured on the front of the package and in hundreds of ads that showed them washing dishes, doing laundry, and generally solving the problems of the American housewife. In their day, the Gold Dust Twins were bigger, more popular, and more recognizable than the Olsen Twins.

This was not random or arbitrary imagery. This was not gratuitous. This was marketing science. The association of mascot and product carried a potent and effective strategic message to the consumer. Households with class and sophistication had Negro servants that washed the dishes and did the laundry and all the rest of the unpleasant chores. The fancy homes. But you too could escape all of that household drudgery! Simply buy Gold Dust Soap Powder and everything practically cleans itself! The advertising was a huge success.

The ironic truth behind the marketing science of this era was that Black people did everything. And they did it better.

And this implicit marketing principle was never more in play than it was in the kitchen. Advertisers recognized that a sure way to communicate good taste and high-quality food was by using a Black spokesperson. (Buy our product and your food will taste as good as if you had a Negro in the kitchen cooking it for you!) A Negro in your food ad was the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And the absolute gold standard for brand spokespersons was Aunt Jemima. For more than a century, Aunt Jemima was a guarantee of a delicious breakfast. No other brand icon has been as popular, as powerful and as effective for so long.

In a 1995 article in the journal Southern Cultures, Maurice Manring wrote:

Peering out from every supermarket’s shelves, between Pop Tarts and maple syrup, is a smiling riddle. Aunt Jemima brand pancake mix has been part of the American life for more than a century now, an overwhelmingly popular choice of consumers. The woman on the box has undergone numerous makeovers, but she remains the same in important ways, a symbol of some unspoken relationship among Black servant women, the kitchen, and good food. This symbol remains too strong a merchandising tool for its owners, the Quaker Oats Company, to give up.

Jemima wasn’t the only aunt in America’s kitchen, however. There was Aunt Sally’s Baking Powder, Aunt Dinah’s Molasses, and an uncountable number of Black mammies whose faces adorned American products at the turn of the century. And of course, there were the uncles too; Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, Uncle Tom’s Smoking Tobacco, Uncle Remus’ Syrup. (In fact, Uncle Tom’s Smoking Tobacco is a product that is still on the market in Great Britain and available via Amazon.) Calling Black people “aunt” and “uncle” was both a product of southern culture and a manipulative element of southern revisionist history. The term suggested that Black people were always part of the extended family in one sense or the other. “They are not our servants. They are just like family to us.”

A convenient illusion. A collective lie.

But they were servants. And their status as servants implicitly elevated the status of white consumers, because it meant that you were classy enough and important enough to have someone serve you. In advertising that graced American newspapers, magazines, and billboards from the 1890s to the 1950s, showing a Black person in an ad was an effective way of communicating superior quality and sophistication. Butlers and porters, and maids would serve these products to people who only enjoyed the very best in life. These were not ads by obscure or long-forgotten obsolete brands. These were the brands that consumers continue to use and enjoy today. Hines Root Beer. Jell-O. Maxwell House Coffee. Budweiser. And dozens, dozens more. It is fair to say that American advertising would not have been the same without us.

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