Episode 628: This Ad's For You : Planet Money In the early 1960s, Tom Burrell became the first black man in Chicago advertising. Today on the show, the story of how he changed the way people think about ads and how advertising thinks about us.
NPR logo

Episode 628: This Ad's For You

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/410589806/410669186" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Episode 628: This Ad's For You

Episode 628: This Ad's For You

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/410589806/410669186" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Back in the 1950s, Tom Burrell was in high school and he had to take one of those aptitude tests. You know, those tests that tell you what you should be when you grow up? And he takes the test, and he scores super high in persuasiveness and artistic ability. And his teacher says, oh, persuasiveness, artistic ability? There's only one profession for you - advertising.

SONARI GLINTON, HOST:

Tom Burnell is not the kind of guy who shies away from things, and so he gets to college and he's like, bring on the advertising world. Well, a professor of his sits him down and tells him, you are smart, you are persuasive, but the problem is there are no black people in advertising.

SMITH: Still, Tom Burnell is not dissuaded. His sees an opening in the mailroom - in the mailroom of Wade Advertising in Chicago - and he applies. And the good news - he is the only applicant. He is a shoo-in.

GLINTON: Well, except this is 1961.

TOM BURRELL: To hire me was a major senior management decision. The chairman, the president, the executive vice president, senior vice president - they met and conferred over the issue of even hiring a Negro. And then after they interviewed me, they met to determine whether they were going to go ahead with this, quote, "revolutionary" kind of move to hire a Negro boy to work in...

GLINTON: The mailroom.

BURRELL: ...In the mailroom. In the mailroom. That was a major executive decision that brought the chairman all the way back from his home in Delray, Fla., to have a meeting to decide that.

GLINTON: And after deliberating, the decision was made. They let him in. He got the job. And now, Tom Burrell was something few people had seen before - a black man in advertising.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILENCE IS SEXY SONG, "HOLIDAY")

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton. Today on the show, the story of Tom Burrell and how he changed the way people write ads and changed the way we think about advertising and the way advertising thinks about us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for PLANET MONEY and this message comes from Dropbox, maker of Dropbox for Business. The average person regularly collaborates on five or more different file types. Dropbox for Business lets you work with team members on any file, from Word docs to PDFs to Photoshop images and large videos. Share files of any size. Access them on phones and tablets, and gather feedback from your team. Dropbox for Business also features admin controls to keep collaboration secure. Learn more at dropbox.com/npr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SILENCE IS SEXY SONG, "HOLIDAY")

SMITH: It is 1961. Tom Burrell has started his new job in the mailroom. And he looks around at Wade Advertising in Chicago, and he realizes this place is about as boring as you can get. It had these really safe, kind of big brands that never took any chances - Robin Hood Flour, Alka-Seltzer, The Grand Ole Opry.

GLINTON: Advertising theory at the time was that to sell products, it had to be really sort of generic, nothing too spicy, don't want to offend anybody. One size fits all targeted at everyone who owned a television set.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALKA-SELTZER AD)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: (As Character) With Alka-Seltzer, relief is just a swallow away. Try it.

SMITH: It probably goes without saying that you could watch Alka-Seltzer ads all day long in the 1960s and never see a nonwhite face.

GLINTON: Burrell really liked the agency. He was really happy just to be in advertising. The people were good to him. They treated him well. And there weren't a ton of those awkward moments that you might expect from being the only black guy in the agency. Except for one - you know, it was the Christmas party. It's always the Christmas party, Robert. This is when the CFO of the company walks up to him and says...

BURRELL: Tom, you know, we're happy you're here. And we're wondering if next year you would be willing or interested in singing some down-home songs?

(LAUGHTER)

BURRELL: So...

GLINTON: What were you thinking? When he said, what did you think?

BURRELL: I think I did the same thing I just did. I think I laughed. I said, whose home we talking? And he never got it.

GLINTON: For the record, he never sang at the office Christmas party. And he didn't really stay in the mailroom that long. He started writing copy, coming up with folksy language to sell flour. He even made a big pitch for the agency's big account - Alka-Seltzer. He had a really edgy idea that involved a sick monkey and Alka-Seltzer. It was weird, it was crazy, but it never got made.

SMITH: After just a few years, Tom Burrell's ambition was too big for Wade Advertising. He found another agency willing to let him do edgier stuff - Needham, Harper & Steers. And they didn't have to fly the CEO in from Florida to approve his higher.

KEITH REINHARD: Tom was the first black copy supervisor we'd ever had in the agency. And, well, he's very tall. He's good-looking. He has a good voice. And he was a very gifted creative guy, so we were drawn to him.

GLINTON: Keith Reinhard was copywriter there in the '60s. And I'm sure you know his work.

REINHARD: (Singing) You'll feel better knowing anytime, anywhere, that like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we got lots of letters from English teachers who objected to our use of, like a good neighbor instead of as a good neighbor, but it stayed with us and they're still using it today.

SMITH: This agency would go on to be one of those big, historic innovators in advertising. And Keith Reinhard says that Tom Burrell was one of the best copywriters they had. And in the weird way that advertising agencies work, these two were both colleagues, but they were also competitors. The two men were often pitted against each other to see who could come up with the best ideas.

REINHARD: One incident I remember, when we were both given the assignment to convince people to try Continental Airlines because they had wider seats, new wider seats. And we tried to crack it. And Tom and his group just nailed it. I think it was Tom himself who came up with this idea to reprint the seat cushions of these new wider seats on Continental Airlines in a double-page newspaper spread. And the headline simply invited readers to sit down on the newspaper spread and see how much wider it was, how much more comfortable. I mean, he really killed it.

GLINTON: Remember, Robert, we're talking about the 1960s in Chicago. So the Civil Rights Movement is going on, and in Chicago there's sort of a Harlem Renaissance. You've got Ebony Magazine, which is a really, really important media outlet for African-Americans, definitely at the time. And their ad reps are going around saying this is a black magazine, the ads have to have black people in them. And that woke up a lot of people in the advertising world and the consumer market world in Chicago.

SMITH: These advertising agencies said, oh, yeah, OK. We need black people in these ads. So what they would do is they would write a script for a TV ad, say, build a set, and first of all, you would hire white actors, like in this ad for Crest. There are these two white kids brushing their teeth at a sink.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREST AD)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: (As Character) I never beat Greg, except once in a toothpaste test. Greg's side used the same toothpaste as mine but without Fluoristan. My side used Crest, and had 42 percent fewer cavities.

SMITH: So then we film the ad with the white actors, and then at the end of the day, swap out the cute white kids for equally cute black kids and have them pretty much do the same ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREST AD)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: (As Character) I never could top Jeff. Then in a toothpaste test, we were on opposite sides. My side used Crest. His side used the same toothpaste but without Fluoristan. And that's when I beat Jeff, 'cause my side had 21 percent fewer cavities with Crest.

GLINTON: Burrell says it was pretty comical how little they thought about black consumers in these days. He told me this one famous story of a State Farm ad that they wanted to change for Ebony Magazine. Now the original ad had a white couple laying in bed.

BURRELL: There was a photograph on the side of the bed, and this is a family photograph. And so then they did a black version of that same ad, but they forgot to change the photograph. (Laughter) So you got this black family in the bed, you got this white family - with a photograph of the white family on the side. And so that was one example. Another example was Schaefer's Beer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHAEFER BEER AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Schaefer's is the one beer to have when you're having more than one.

GLINTON: A lot of brands like Schaefer's like to rely on nostalgia, you know, thinking about the good old days. Well, for black people, the good old days weren't that good, especially when it was before the Emancipation Proclamation.

BURRELL: And at the time, the line was, 1856, that was a very good year for beer.

GLINTON: It was a very bad year for black people.

(LAUGHTER)

BURRELL: And this ad is showing up in Ebony Magazine. So there's something really strategically wrong with this, talking about how good a year 1856 was for beer. And it just screamed insensitivity, screamed insensitivity. It was a horrible year for us.

GLINTON: Robert, you can imagine just how weird this was. You got a black guy who's working at an all-white advertising agency. And Tom Burrell is going home to the south side of Chicago, which is sort of erupting in the Civil Rights Movement, and there are these slogans and the Black Panthers. And there's this idea of black power. And, you know, he wrestles with this idea. And he decides he's going to come up with his own slogan that's especially meant for the advertising world.

BURRELL: Black people are not dark skinned white people.

SMITH: You know, when we talked to people about Tom Burrell, they quote this almost verbatim back to us. He said it so often. Black people are not dark skinned white people. And, in fact, Burrell decides to finally start his own advertising firm, really based on this principle - a black advertising agency that understood and could sell to the black consumer. Now I know this seems immensely obvious now, but at the time, it felt like, you know, a real slap in the face to these white agencies he worked for.

REINHARD: I had some reservations about some of the things he was saying.

SMITH: You may remember Tom's colleague, Keith Reinhard.

REINHARD: Whether or not we as Caucasian creative people would be able to appeal to the black audience, I felt that we could and that we had in some cases. But it was pretty hard to argue with Tom when he said, you know, blacks are not white people with dark skin. I mean, we have a culture of our own and we need to express that.

GLINTON: So Tom Burrell eventually got a partner, Emmett McBain, and they formed the firm Burrell McBain, one of the first all-black ad agencies in 1971. It would eventually become Burrell Communications. And the big brands came running, desperate - brands like Jack Daniels, Ford, and one of his big first clients was Philip Morris and the Marlboro Man. And this was a big problem selling the Marlboro Man to African-Americans. The Marlboro Man was this rugged cowboy who was always filmed on horseback in like a Utah-like landscape smoking cigarettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLBORO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As The Marlboro Man) The Longhorns come to Marlboro Country. Marlboro 100's in the big gold...

BURRELL: I don't even know where to start. I mean, first of all, when you start talking about Longhorns, you've lost me. You've lost me on Longhorns. I'm done. And then when you start talking about a hundred years ago, you lost me on that too because that's the last thing I want to do is go back a hundred years ago with a bunch of rural, cowboy white guys. That doesn't sound too safe.

GLINTON: So Phillip Morris wanted to create a black Marlboro Man. And of course, they came to Tom Burrell.

What did you do to make it appeal to someone like you?

BURRELL: Well, I took it out of the Marlboro country, and I put it into the city. That's one thing, and the Marlboro man became a very cool city dude, very well - very stylish, well-dressed, cool - had a big cool factor going.

SMITH: Gone was the cowboy hat, the big belt buckle. The new black Marlboro Man has a sweater. And he sits there, and he stares out, not at the range, but at his swanky library. It is urbane; it is urban; it is definitely not a cowboy scene.

BURRELL: We changed the line, which was almost blasphemy. We changed the line from come to where the flavor is, and the line was simply where the flavor is. So we're basically saying that the city where black people are is where the flavor is.

GLINTON: What Burrell did was take this general marketing ad, and he tailored it for a black audience. But he really didn't want to be, you know, finishing someone else's work. He wanted to be doing something bigger. He had a bigger vision - to craft an ad in a campaign from the ground up.

SMITH: And he got the chance. In fact, he got the biggest chance that an ad agency can get. If you've seen "Mad Men," you know what this means - McDonald's called. McDonald's called. Well, actually, this guy called.

PAUL SCHRAGE: Paul Schrage.

GLINTON: You were in charge of marketing at McDonald's for quite a while, right?

SCHRAGE: I started the marketing department.

SMITH: McDonald's. And in the 1970s, McDonald's had one goal and one goal only - grow, aggressively grow. It had already conquered the suburbs. It wanted to move big into the cities.

SCHRAGE: Well, it became apparent that the black consumer was growing in numbers and importance and felt that we needed somebody that was specialized in that area.

SMITH: Sonari, I think this is one of those moments where the phrase call Tom Burrell came out in the conference room.

GLINTON: Yeah. It wasn't like there were, you know, sheets and sheets of black advertising agencies at the time. And when Tom Burrell finally sat down with McDonald's, he had to explain to them not, hey guys, you need to sell to black people. That part they got. But it was the way that African-Americans interact with your restaurants is different than the way white people do. In the commercials at the time, they would show white families piling into the car. The idea was that McDonald's, to them, was a treat, a destination. In the black community, McDonald's meant something completely different.

BURRELL: McDonald's was not used as a place where the family would go. The McDonald's was used as a place where working people would go and take a break whenever they had a chance. It was a place where children would go very often by themselves. The average check for a family going to McDonald's on these special occasions was larger, the frequency was less. The average check in the black community was a lot smaller, and the kids were running in and out getting french fries.

SMITH: And Tom had this big realization, which was that McDonald's wasn't just a place to eat. McDonald's was also a place to work. It was a major employer in the city. And so he launched a series of ads known in the industry as "Calvin" 'cause it was about this kid named Calvin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCDONALD'S AD, "CALVIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) Hey, isn't that Calvin?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Character): I haven't been seen him for a while. Wonder where he's heading.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) I heard he got a job.

GLINTON: Dig that '80s hip-hop beat. Well, it shows a young, black teenager. He's strolling through the hood, which looks strangely like the Brooklyn set on the back lot at Paramount.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCDONALD'S AD, "CALVIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) ...Covered now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Character) Looks like responsibility has been good for him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) Well, I'm just glad somebody believed in him enough to give him a chance.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Character) Wonder where he's working?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Calvin) Welcome to McDonald's. May I help you?

GLINTON: Well, Robert, it sounds kind of funny now. The ads are a little bit cheesy and straight-ahead. But the thing is, they were really successful, and they ran for a decade. And you followed Calvin as he worked his way up to becoming a manager at McDonald's.

(SOUNDBITE OF MCDONALD'S AD, "CALVIN MANAGER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Character) Calvin?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Character) Calvin A's to hang on the corner?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As Character) So you own McDonald's.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Calvin) No, not yet.

GLINTON: You know, I'm pretty sure that in the alternative universe that Calvin is living in, he owns a McDonald's. Well, he probably owns, like, a whole chain of McDonald's or something like that.

SMITH: As someone who watched a lot of TV in the '80s, it couldn't happen to a nicer kid. By the time this ad aired, Tom Burrell was certifiably famous. He was this huge name in advertising. And you know what happens when you're a huge name in advertising - you also get a lot of criticism. And there were people at the time who said, look, yeah, you made a success in this industry. But you made a success in this industry by selling brands that weren't exactly high-end luxury brands or health food stores.

GLINTON: And I had to ask him about that.

In your early success, some of the accounts that you got where, you know, the Marlboro Man we just talked about, Jack Daniels. The obvious question would be, you know, these are not the best things for African-Americans.

BURRELL: Right. That's right.

GLINTON: And this is how you're making your living. How do you feel about that?

BURRELL: Oh, I struggled with that, and I struggle with it.

GLINTON: Burrell ended up dropping the cigarette clients pretty early on in his career. What's important to note is that at the time, Burrell realized the kind of platform that he had with McDonald's. You know, he had a theory that he wanted to work on. It was called positive realism, which meant putting regular black people in real-life situations on television.

BURRELL: So it had that kind of positive effect even though, arguably, we were selling things to them that, as we see now, were not good for them. And, you know, but there were no things that I recall selling that I declined to use.

SMITH: And once people saw that he was successful with doing that would McDonald's, a lot of the other big, American, blue-chip brands came running to him - American Airlines, Toyota, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Sears.

GLINTON: And his slogan, that black people aren't dark-skinned white people, became kind of gospel in the advertising world. But not just relating to African Americans. The Burrell principal was one size doesn't fit all, and each group needs to be taken into account.

ROBERT KLARA: What Burrell did opened the door for the kind of ethnic micro-targeting that we see today.

GLINTON: Robert Klara is contributing editor at Adweek.

KLARA: And the way that he did that was by making mainstream brands not just aware of the black community as a very viable community of consumers, but he also furnished them with a means to reach them that was new and effective. And then once that in and of itself became a mainstream thing, the natural evolution of that trend was then for advertisers to say, oh, well, then there must be other groups that we can reach out to. And the idea of specialized advertising, targeted demographic advertising grows out of that. But you wouldn't have had that if you didn't have the initial awareness of the broader demographic group that Burrell helped to create.

GLINTON: Tom Burrell is basically retired now, though, he does some consulting sort of trying to help major brands understand how to use or not use hip-hop. After all this time, he still has to teach the same lessons he was teaching 50 years ago.

BURRELL: You're not marketing if you're not targeting. And so this whole business about one size fits all, I mean, there's still a kind of a movement on the part of wishful-thinking clients that say hey, can't we just talk to one group of people because it's so much easier. But the whole thing is that we now have the ability to really get in and talk to people on an - more individual basis.

GLINTON: Now, marketers realize it would be ridiculous to just try to sell to the black guy or the white guy. It's about selling to the young, black, gay guy who lives in West Hollywood, plays golf listens to Frank Sinatra and likes public radio.

SMITH: Wait, wait, wait, wait. You play golf?

GLINTON: Yeah, of course, I play golf. (Laughter). Well, the idea, Robert, is that more and more, you won't be thinking, who is this ad really for? Now, you're supposed to think, this ad is especially for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG-HOLT UNLIMITED SONG, "WACK WACK")

GLINTON: By the way, Robert, this is a Young-Holt Unlimited, a Chicago group. And while I was working on this story, I've been listening to a lot of Chicago groups. The '60s was kind of a golden age for black music in Chicago. And NPR librarian Robert Goldstein and I came a playlist for the time. You can find a link to it on our website, npr.org/money. In his retirement, Tom Burrell has taken up jazz singing, and now he might just sing you a down-home song if you catch him on the subway. He's also the author of the book "Brainwashed: Challenging The Myth Of Black Inferiority."

SMITH: We always love to hear you think of the show. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org, or you can find us on Twitter; we're all there. You can tweet us @PlanetMoney.

GLINTON: Special thanks to my colleague, Mandalit del Barco, and to the NPR Reference Library, who did a lot of heavy lifting for this story. In the spirit of Tom Burrell, they recently rebranded themselves. They've changed their name to the Research Archives and Data strategy group or RAD.

SMITH: NPR RAD. I love it. Our episode today was produced by Frances Harlow. And if you're looking for another great podcast now that you're done with this awesome podcast, checkout Snap Judgment with Glynn Washington. It's an hour-long show about real people telling real stories. You can find it at npr.org/podcast and on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.

GLINTON: And I'm Sonari Glinton. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG-HOLT UNLIMITED SONG, "WACK WACK")

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.