Coming out of World War II, African Americans were better employed and better paid, and many carried expectations of better lives and better treatment rooted in their sacrifices to the war effort. In other words, black consumers represented an underdeveloped, but extremely promising, revenue source to corporate America. Kendrix understood this.
Eventually, he convinced Coca-Cola’s higher-ups as well, who hired him to be the central architect of the company’s postwar campaign to target the “Negro market.”
The cornerstone of Kendrix’s campaign was advertising. Before the Second World War, merchandisers and advertisers, generally, did not recognize or respect African-Americans as consumers, and black marketplace images reflected this. If African-Americans appeared in advertisements at all, it was often in the form of offensive, minstrel-like characters or as the servant. Black “mammy” or “Uncle Tom” figures became successful marketing devices in the form of “Aunt Jemima,” “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Rastus,” representing a class that produced or served, but did not buy consumer goods.
These advertising practices denied African-Americans a cultural identity as consumers, which was of no small consequence in the early Cold War context. At the time, U.S. media institutions, politicians and business leaders all claimed mass consumption was essential to the nation’s recovery, strength and security, which, as historian Lizabeth Cohen argues, helped established consumerism as central to notions of what it meant to be American after World War II.
Moss Kendrix directed
So it was that, in October 1953, EBONY readers flipping through the magazine came across a full-page, four-color print ad featuring the popular basketball player, Harlem Globetrotter Reese “Goose” Tatum. Founded immediately after the war by John Johnson, EBONY was the most widely circulated black publication, by far. Kendrix offered up the magazine to
The black celebrity Coke ads were successful and achieved desired inroads into the black market, but Kendrix viewed this campaign as a half measure. In the mid-1950s, he and another Coca-Cola special markets representative he helped bring onboard went to work producing a campaign that depicted African-Americans as “everyday” people.
Seeking these “everyday people,” Kendrix visited the Atlanta-based Clark and Morehouse colleges, where he recruited black college students to appear in Coke’s first non-celebrity “Negro market” ads. Beginning in 1955, these young black men and women appeared in advertisements that featured portraits of black women shopping teaching and typing; black men wielding golf clubs or relaxing in a “favorite chair” after work; a dungaree-wearing black boy playing leapfrog or bicycling; young women gossiping, playing tennis and dressed for prom; and young couples flirting, picnicking and studying.
These marketplace images of blackness circulated widely. They appeared in the black print media, including EBONY magazine, black newspapers and trade journals, as well as in primarily (but not exclusively) black business establishments as point-of-sale displays, and out in the open as billboards and subway placards.
In presenting blacks as “everyday” Americans, these non-celebrity black advertisements mirrored precisely the company’s so-called “general market” advertisements. The Kendrix-inspired ads, for example, featured his amateur black models wearing the same clothing and striking the same poses as the professional white models appearing in
As reactions to the Brown decision made it painfully, and violently clear, however, much of white America was not ready to accept integration as a concept. It followed, then, that visuals of racial integration might also be unpopular. Equally true, by featuring only black models, the non-celebrity black ads responded to a desire among African- Americans for recognition as the “normal” consumer in addition to, if not instead of, the typically-sought-after white consumer.
And herein lies the larger significance of the non-celebrity
With a doggedness that his contemporaries noted and admired, Moss Kendrix managed to work his way into the executive offices and boardrooms of
Brenna Wynn Greer is a historian of race, gender and culture who received her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Formerly an Erskine Peters Fellow at the University of Notre Dame, she is now an assistant professor in the Department of History at Wellesley College, where she teaches topics in 20th century U.S. history, African-American history, consumerism and visual culture. When not teaching, she is at work on her current book project concerning marketplace images of blackness and post-World War II civil rights efforts.