I am a more-than-casual student of advertising. Advertising — print, TV, online, hard-sell, subliminal — reflects American life: the good, the bad, the unattainable. The ridiculous.
Nobody disputes that. But I also maintain that advertising is an art form demanding intelligent presentation, compelling graphics and, the deal-maker, wit.
Proof? The Mobius and Addy Awards, Oscar-like competitions for best ads. Front and center, the best showcase has to be the annual NFL Super Bowl, with commercials as carefully crafted as an Agatha Christie plot. Advertisers don’t pay millions a minute for junk.
I am not susceptible to ads that survive on repetition. Ditto spokespeople. I prefer not to buy insurance from Flo or a Cockney gecko. After all these years, a glimpse of Marie Osmond simpers NutriSystem. Point taken. Step down, Marie.
On the flip side, if I drank beer it would be Bud, so great was the impression left by that Clydesdale-and-golden retriever-puppy commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.
I Google it still, and tear up every time. When I actually saw those magnificent beasts in the flesh, I melted all over the pavement.
Another ad, maybe from the ’70s, that stuck: a full-page color photo, probably in Life magazine, of a snow plow plowing through the deep, throwing up a spray of white, late at night.
Underneath, a question: “What does the snowplow driver drive?”
The ad was for Volkswagen. Smart. Brilliant.
Not so brilliant: 1950s car ads with catchy slogans, like Buick’s “Ask the MAN who owns one.” Think how that would go over now.
For decades, post-World War II ads depicted all-white folks living their comfy lives, ignoring African Americans who ate Rice Krispies and brushed with Crest, too.
The tide (not the laundry kind) first turned for women in the liberated ’60s. Manufacturers pandered shamelessly. Off came the aprons. Ads put women in corner offices and depicted Mr. Moms aplenty not because they believed in role modification but for the sales value. The race barrier was slower to weaken, even after Black sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “The Bill Cosby Show,” where Daddy was a doctor and Mommy an attorney but commercials had white spokespeople.
The rationale, I presume: Whites won’t buy what African Americans advertise unless the pitchmen are sports stars. What is that, if not institutional racism?
Gradually, barriers weakened. TV series included one or two diversity characters, a token. In 1990 the seminal “Law & Order” introduced Richard Brooks as an assistant DA. In 1994 Eriq LaSalle played a physician on “E.R.” Today, at least one character of color is an absolute requirement for any cast; an improvement, not necessarily realistic.
The trend kept expanding: gay and Asian characters, biracial families — no pot went unstirred.
A few boiled over, particularly in the South, where some commercials featuring biracial couples were excluded, for a while, fearing boycott.
But something has gone awry. Happy ads depicting a white woman bringing cookies to a new Black neighbor. Gal friends lunching at a sidewalk café. Interracial play dates, golf games. All common in ads, less common in real life. Maybe somewhere, not everywhere. The most gorgeous supermarket in North Carolina sits at the entrance to a historic African American neighborhood, yet I rarely see a person of color shopping there.
Ironically, the saddest of all is seeing Black Lives Matter on placards and T-shirts. Of course Black lives matter! Heartbreaking, that events have made this assertion not only necessary but mandatory.
Institutional racism is a hot topic, especially in an election year coinciding with events that have ignited a groundswell. However, it seems to me that generational racism should be outed, too. No child is born racist. Americans in their 70s, 80s and 90s, primarily Southerners, grew up with segregation and all the abhorrent attitudes accompanying it. They learned what has been called benevolent racism from parents, grandparents — no excuse, but true. The really frightening racist population, however, is way younger than Baby Boomers. They find ways to express hateful beliefs, insidiously, described as “dog whistle politics,” like the “save the (white) suburbs from low-income (diversity) invasion” initiative.
Which brings me back to advertising. In 1972, Betty Crocker was re-imaged more career-woman than housewife. Updated portraits cemented this change. Long ago, Quaker Oats transformed Aunt Jemima from a “mammy” to a modern woman. But not until 2020 did they withdraw the name, citing “origins based on a racial stereotype.”
Uncle Ben is under scrutiny.
What took so long, guys?
I’m still waiting for an African American or Asian Betty Crocker.
Ads will play a powerful role in the upcoming election. Beware pandering, dog whistles. Beware technology. Most of all, remember this: Consumers are protected from fraud by a federal Truth in Advertising law. No such statute governs political advertising.
This time, vote for the America pictured in ads where people of many colors live, worship, work — even shop — side by side, in peace and safety. Because it won’t happen any other way.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.