Coca-Cola advertising, such as this “Sign of Good Taste” poster featuring model Mary Alexander, helped solidify a new marketplace image for African-Americans in postwar America.
In 1948, an article in the popular black lifestyle magazine EBONY reported that The Coca-Cola Company was contemplating hiring an African-American marketing specialist. Entitled “Brown Hucksters,” the piece mentioned no names, but the specialist under consideration could only have been Moss Hyles Kendrix. Only 31 years old at the time, Kendrix was already well known in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta circles as a talented pitchman based on publicity he devised to promote the black press, war bonds, and even the centennial of the West African nation of Liberia. Moreover, for the past three years, he had been hounding executives in Coca-Cola’s Atlanta and New York offices to contract him to act as a bridge between the company and black consumers.
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 Coca-Cola in producing “Negro market” marketing that approached black Americans as the American consumers they were. As Coca-Cola’s special markets expert, he was perfectly positioned to help shift the consumer image of blacks in advertising. For one, from his position, he had the ear of E. Deloney Sledge, the Director of Advertising for Coca-Cola. At the time, Sledge had one of the largest advertising budgets in the world and the corresponding influence in the world of visual marketing. Working with Sledge and Coca-Cola’s ad agency of record, the D’Arcy Company, Kendrix first tapped the influential connections he had from his previous public relations work and assembled a handful of black entertainers, musicians and sports figures to appear in Coca-Cola’s first round of “Negro market” ads.
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 Coca-Cola execs as the perfect vehicle to circulate its new advertisements targeted to black consumers.
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 inCoca-Cola’s mainstream marketing materials. In this sense, Kendrix and Coca-Cola deployed a racially separatist visual politics at that very moment, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was attacking the “separate-but-equal” doctrine in the Supreme Court case of the Brown v. Board of Education.
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 Coca-Cola“Negro market” ad images that Kendrix helped produce. They visually redefined African-Americans as “true Americans” by depicting them as sought-after, enthusiastic consumers of a product so iconically American in the post-World War II world that Kendrix himself defined it as (in one of his characteristically convoluted analogies) “American as education and as free as enterprise.”
With a doggedness that his contemporaries noted and admired, Moss Kendrix managed to work his way into the executive offices and boardrooms of Coca-Cola and engineered a marketing campaign that advanced blacks’ postwar citizenship claims by asserting their American identity as consumers of American goods. Picturing blacks consuming, rather than serving its product, Coca-Cola’s first non-celebrity “Negro market” advertisements visually forged associations between conceptions of “blackness” and “Americanness,” by picturing fashionably dressed, Coke-drinking African Americans involved in middle-class activities while literally imbibing their American identity from the classic, green glass bottle.
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.