Collection: Early Black Ads
As World War II came to a close, tobacco companies needed to expand to “new” markets in order to maintain prosperity. At this point, they began issuing mass marketing efforts targeting African Americans. Whereas there was minor advertising in weekly African Americans newspapers prior to the war, scholars cite a number of post-war changes as the sources for the surge in market expansion, mainly the growth in urban migration and the steadily increasing incomes of African Americans in the 1940s (1). One scholar explains that “between 1920 and 1943, the annual income of African Americans increased threefold, from $3 billion to more than $10 billion,” making the population an increasingly appealing demographic for the tobacco industry (2). Indeed, advertising and marketing magazines published many articles at the time describing the profitable “emerging Negro market.” One such article from 1944, for example, was titled, “The American Negro—An ‘Export’ Market at Home” (3). A subsequent article printed a year later provided a table depicting “How Negroes Spent Their Incomes, 1920-1943 (4). The table revealed that the amount of money African Americans spent on tobacco products increased six-fold from 1920 to 1943.
Perhaps the catalyzing force in the tobacco industry’s foray into African American targeting came in the form of emerging advertising avenues that could be used to target African American populations without alienating whites; the 1940s saw the introduction of a number of glossy monthly magazines including Negro Digest (1942, renamed Black World), Ebony (1945) and Negro Achievements (1947, renamed Sepia). These mass-media publications were much more attractive to advertisers than the African American daily newspapers of the pre-war era, with glossy pages and a larger national distribution. The magazines, because they were intended for a purely African American audience, also provided advertisers with an opportunity to run ads featuring African American models away from the eyes of white consumers.
Internal tobacco industry documents reveal the massive development of the African American market in the 1940s and its impact on the tobacco industry. Public Relations firms specializing in targeting African American populations sent materials to the major tobacco companies hoping to secure business partnerships. One PR firm, in correspondence with RJ Reynolds in 1949, reminded the company that, “The negro market is a big one. I sincerely hope that I may have the opportunity [sic] of helping to further cultivate it for you” (5).
The major tobacco companies all made inroads on the “Negro market” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Indeed, before the invent of such avenues, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the only ads featuring African Americans were racist advertisements using black caricatures, a striking contrast to the depictions seen in African American publications from the late 1940s to early 1950s, which featured African American models as professionals, students, and famous athletes. An advertising trade magazine, Printer’s Ink, described how, in 1947, the American Tobacco Company “entered the Negro market with a series of Famous Firsts about Negroes that were eye-openers to many in advertising” (6). The article describes the campaign content as telling “the history of some of the outstanding achievements of the Negroes,” most of which, according to the article, “were little known to students of the race.” Examples of these spotlights included Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and “some of the modern Negro notables.” The Printer’s Ink article explains that the campaign intends to market cigarettes to African Americans by demonstrating “to the Negro that his race has accomplished many things.”
Tobacco advertising methods targeting African Americans shifted in the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and just as there was economic and market pressure in the 1940s to increase marketing efforts to African Americans, the 1970s and 1980s sparked resurgence in these efforts. An R.J. Reynolds document from 1969, for example, marks an increase in “Negro purchasing power” from 3 billion in 1940 to 32 billion in 1970. At this point, in order to refocus attention on the African American population and strengthen their ties to the community, tobacco companies worked on promotional campaigns, which funded key organizations such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the United Negro College Fund. An internal Brown & Williamson document declares that the “relatively small and often tight knit community can work to B&W’s marketing advantage if exploited properly. Peer pressure plays a more important role in many phases of life in the minority community. Therefore, dominance of the market place and the community environment is necessary to successfully increase sales there” (7).
As the industry began sponsoring African American institutions and charities, they also shifted their print advertising techniques to reflect the changing political climate. Increasingly, models wearing “naturals” or Afros began popping up in ads for Newport, L&M, Kent, Kool, and many more. A Kent ad from 1971 shows a man and a woman, both wearing Afros, talking on the phone together and smoking cigarettes, the slogan “Rap’n Kent” underneath.
One scholar describes advertisements from the early 1960s as portraying a “racially desegregated society in which the discerning tastes and values of black consumers were highlighted” (3). But she notes a shift with the emergence of Black Power, in which ads were able to latch onto the Black Nationalism movement while completely avoiding the political ideology therein. Instead, the ads worked at “selling soul,” and “invoked themes of black pride, solidarity, and “soul style.” Indeed, a Viceroy ad campaign from 1970 demonstrates a carefully crafted combination of both approaches. One ad from the campaign shows a stylish couple – the man in a suit and the woman in a yellow mod mini-dress – shopping at an outdoor art boutique while smoking. The caption reads, “Their collection? It’s fun to build on. Their apartment looks like a gallery. With everything from Neo-Afro realism to their child’s finger painting. Their cigarettes? Viceroy. They won’t settle for anything less. It’s a matter of taste.” This ad exemplifies the industry’s blatant attempts at exploiting Black Nationalism. An internal Brown & Williamson document from 1969 reveals that tobacco companies were indeed using this theme to market cigarettes: “The desire for blackness, or soul, as part of solving their identity crisis is something that must be understood. A sense of identity is being accentuated because today, as never before, Negroes are taking pride in themselves” (8). Viceroy, like many of the other leading brands, also capitalized on this “soul” movement. Another ad from the same series features four African Americans at a nightclub enjoying drinks and cigarettes while listening to a musician. White people sit in the background enjoying the same music. The caption for this ad reads, “Their sounds? They like ‘em heavy. And with soul. The music not only has to say something. It has to move.”
At this time, menthols also emerged as a cigarette targeting African-Americans. Whereas in the past, menthol cigarettes had been advertised to the general population as an occasional cigarette to smoke when sick or suffering from smoker’s cough, the 1960s brought along the beginnings of a different image for the menthol cigarette. In 1969 alone, Lorillard increased its “Negro market budget” by 87% over 1968 due to the introduction of its menthol cigarette, Newport, to the African American market. Likewise, British American Tobacco doubled their budget from 1968 to 1969 in order to increase African-American radio station coverage for its menthol cigarette, Kool, as well as for Viceroy, which targeted African American stations (8). Today, over 70% of African-American smokers smoke menthols as opposed to only 35% of white smokers (9).
1. Walker, Susannah. “Black Dollar Power:” Susannah Walker. (University of Chicago Press, Jul 15, 2009 )
2. Walker, Susannah. “Style & Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975”
3. Sullivan, David J. “The American Negro—An ‘Export’ Market at Home!” Printer’s Ink; 208:3. 21 July 1944:90.
4 Sullivan, David J. “How Negroes Spent Their Incomes, 1920-1943.” Sales Management. 15 June 1945.
5. “Thank You Very Much For Your Letter of the 23rd.” RJ Reynolds. 31 March 1949. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/bwz79d00
6. “—No Title—.” American Tobacco. 26 Nov 1948. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/vaj41a00
7. “Discussion Paper: Total Minority Marketing Plan,” 7 Sept 1984. Http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/dmf41f00
8. “A Study of Ethnic Markets.” R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Sept 1969. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/paq76b00
9. Gardiner, Phillip S. “The African Americanization of menthol cigarette use in the United States.” Nicotine & Tobacco Research Vol.6 Supp. 1. Feb 2004.