February 23rd, 2005

Black History and Ads Don't Mix, Activists Say

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post

The green and yellow flier from the Kmart in Aspen Hill proclaimed, “Celebrate Black History” and then advertised “3 for $1 Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix” and “3 for $10 Tone 6-Bar Soap.”

The makers of Metamucil and Pepto-Bismol ran a full-page ad in this month’s Ebony magazine declaring, “Black History Month is a legacy of pride and achievement leading to a healthier tomorrow.” The ad continues, “It’s the same ideals you turn to when it comes to your GI Health—a history of digestive solutions.”

The advertisements are among dozens that tout laxatives, cars, even yoga classes under the guise of paying homage to African American history. Educators and some civil rights activists say they are bothered by what they consider exploitation of a season meant to honor the contributions of black Americans. But marketing experts say the trend is not surprising in a nation that once considered draping advertising banners across the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“Eventually any piece of history or American culture gets trivialized by advertisers,” said Barbara Lippert, the advertising critic for Adweek magazine. “They just use any opportunity as a platform to sell something.  . . . Everything becomes about buying and selling.”

Activist Jesse L. Jackson said that some of the ads are produced by the same companies that “denied access” to blacks and that they trivialize the historic struggle.

“What pains me is that these ads are feel-good sessions about a black general who did this or someone who sang a song or a political figure who worked on this, and ‘Aren’t there some wonderful black people?’ “ he said. “Of course that is true, but they don’t deal with issues like . . . why black people work as hard and make less, why black people are stressed out and don’t live as long.”

Deena Barlev, who teaches a civil rights course at a Montgomery County middle school, was heading into Kmart to buy socks on sale when she saw the flier.

“I was thinking the store was celebrating Black History Month. Then I looked further down the flier and saw that they were advertising Tone bar soap . . . and cornbread mix,” Barlev said. “I thought, ‘No, they didn’t!’ “

In a statement, Kmart officials said the fliers are a “celebration of the contributions African Americans have made to America’s history.” The statement said the store is sponsoring a “scholarship sweepstakes” in which entrants can vie for a $20,000 certificate of deposit. The company also “incorporates special sale pricing of popular items.”

In the District, U Street Yoga is advertising a “Black History Month Yoga Class” to “encourage African Americans to embrace their heritage through yoga, which has roots in African culture.”

Black History Month, celebrated in February, got its start in the 1920s as Negro History Week, when D.C. historian Carter G. Woodson sought to encourage teachers to include contributions by African Americans in their history lessons.

Advertisers began linking their marketing efforts to the celebration years ago, Lippert said, recalling an ad that used a digitally altered scene of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial to sell telecommunications products.

Lippert said advertisers have a long history of “exploiting” history to sell products. A company that manufactured the children’s laxative Fletcher’s Castoria proposed hanging a banner with its name on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in exchange for paying into the statue’s construction, she said.

Some advertisers link their ads to a charitable cause, but Lippert said many are token donations. “They jump on these teeny charitable donations to be able to exploit [the holiday], then turn around and say, ‘Exploit? We don’t exploit.’ “

Many ads pay tribute to black history without mentioning a product. Toyota ran an ad this month honoring Philip Emeagwali, who in 1975 “theorized the HyperBall International Network of computers. Today, we call it the Internet.”

Wal-Mart’s ads celebrate the “Buffalo Soldiers.” A McDonald’s newspaper ad spotlighted exceptional students at Friendship Edison Public Charter School in the District.

In ads this month in Ebony and Jet magazines, Ford Motor Co. takes credit for improving the lot of black Americans:"Henry Ford recognized the value of a skilled workforce—regardless of race. And when Ford . . . became the first major corporation to pay African American workers equal pay for equal work, it helped give birth to the Black middle class.”

Ford spokesman Mitchell Johnson said the firm was among the first to hire blacks into high-paying jobs, helping to spur the migration of African Americans from the South to the North. “We want to be out there on the forefront because of our heritage of supporting the communities we do business with,” he said.

Other ads—such as the Procter & Gamble ad for Metamucil, Pepto-Bismol and Prilosec—refer directly to products.

Vince Hudson, marketing director for the company’s “GI brands,” said the ad was intended to show a connection between the progress blacks have made in society and in improving their health. “We are celebrating all the contributions African Americans have made and the rich history and traditions,” said Hudson, who is black. “This ad is a salute to that from brands that have been there throughout the history, also.”

Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights activist who once led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, said black history “should not be ground into the economic acquisition machine.”

Researchers Meg Smith and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

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