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Let Them Drink Coke

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Pretty much, someone is trying to market something to everyone, always. But this was not always the case. Not so long ago, African-Americans were largely ignored by marketers. As part of our "Consumed" series, Weekend America reporter Krissy Clark brings us the story of how Madison Avenue discovered minorities.

by Krissy Clark

The average American runs across more than 600 advertisements a day--for beer, insurance, Viagra, a new credit card. So, as you're doing errands this weekend, ask yourself this: What if you lived in a world where no one cared whether you bought their stuff? In this world, advertising slogans and product jingles still exist. It's just none of them are directed at YOU. Because YOU are invisible to the companies.

Sound good? Before you sign up, consider this: This world did exist once, for some Americans. It was a simple matter of race.

African Americans were pretty much non-entities in the eyes of marketers for first half of the 20th century, even in the humble world of soda-pop. Simply put, "Negroes did not buy coca-cola," says Moss Kendrix, Jr., a retired Air force Colonel.

At least, that was the case until Kendrix's father, Moss Kendrix, Sr., came on the scene. Some say Kendrix Sr. helped changed the world. A world where, yes, soda-fountains were segregated. So too were the soda's themselves. Whites drank coke. Blacks drank a little Pepsi, and Nehi.

Both those companies were, in the early 1900s, smaller brands that deigned to market to black communities. But, for the major brands, the thinking went something like this: "If you were black, you probably couldn't afford a soda habit. And even if you could ... so what?" Call it a case of racism trumping capitalism.

"One of the unfortunate manifestations of this dismissal of African Americans was the very derogatory trade names associated with many products in the early 20th century: Nigger and pickaninny and coon. Because African Americans were considered to be irrelevant, a lot of these large companies felt they could insult people with impunity," says historian Robert Weems, author of the book "Desegregating the Dollar."

And when blacks weren't being insulted, they were being ignored. Like in this tv ad from the 1950s.

As we watch an all-white clientele relax in a soda fountain, the spokesman tells us, "It's little wonder that smart shoppers everywhere take time to pause and refresh. And where else but in the fountain where they sell ice-cold coca-cola."

"Something like that would NOT relate to African American families at time," says Audrey Davis, curator at the Black History Museum in Alexandria, Va. "Especially if it was something taking place at a soda fountain where you would not have been able to sit."

And here's where Moss Kendrix, Sr. comes in. He grew up in Atlanta, caddied for Coca Cola big-wigs as a kid, and graduated from all-black Morehouse College. During World War II, he traveled the country for the U.S. Army selling war bonds to African Americans. This gave him an idea, according to Davis. "He realized that coca-cola could possibly tap into a multi-million dollar market with the African American community, and they weren't doing it."

In 1946, Kendrix wrote the Coca-Cola Company out of the blue. This was a time when blacks were moving to cities, getting better jobs, and more money to spend. By 1951, Coca-Cola hired Kendrix as a PR consultant and he got to work.

Until then, Coke was "using African Americans as porters to load trucks with Coca-Cola," says Davis. "But they weren't seeing them as salesmen." So Kendrix had a plan. One, encourage Coke to hire more black salesmen. Two, get black stars, like Lena Horn to promote Coke. And three, Kendrix himself traveled the country meeting with black professionals. He brought with him, ice buckets full of free Coke.

"And I would be the kid standing behind the booth, serving free coca-cola," remembers Kendrix's son, Moss Kendrix Jr. "And it was cold!"

Later Kendrix landed accounts with Carnation Milk, and the Ford Motor Company too.

Advertising historian Jason Chambers, author of the forth-coming book, "Madison Avenue and the Color Line," says it's no coincidence that Kendrix's PR work was going on just as the civil rights movement was taking off. "Kendrix is a force to say 'Hey look, there's this group of people out here, and they've got money. They're a growing force in the urban marketplace, and so it's a market that you've at least got to pay attention to if you want to sell your products."

It's what made the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and 1960s possible, says Chambers. "If you make companies aware of the value of African Americans to their bottom line, then that increases the potential power that African Americans have."

It's an interesting equation. As African Americans gained recognition as consumers, they gained economic power. And they could leverage that power in the fight for their full rights as citizens.

But even as blacks flexed this new muscle, corporate America was poring over their spending habits and inner psyches. They eat 30 percent less cheese than whites. They really like scotch. In 1962 one trade magazine wrote coyly, "There's no need to summarize here the social history that has produced the special demands of the Negro market, except to say this: The negro seeks recognition, in commercial affairs as in other areas of life." Bling was right around the corner.

But there's an epilogue to this story. One day in the 1980s, historian Robert Weems was driving around his old neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. "It was just very stunning in riding around and walking around." Weems started wondering what the ultimate legacy really was of pioneers like the late Moss Kendrix, Sr.

Here was this place that for decades was virtually ignored by national advertisers. And now Weems felt like he was witnessing an advertising explosion. "Everywhere you looked there was a cigarette or billboard ad in the African American community," he says. "One of the most effective ones was the colt 45 Malt Liquor ad featuring Billy D. Williams."

Weems remembers the marketing line: "The power of Colt 45. It works every time."

And Robert Weems asked himself just what exactly Colt 45, or any of the other brands marketing to his old neighborhood, thought was working.

More stories from our Sustainability series


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