Cousin to ad man Bill Sharp, Thomas J. Burrell started his career as a humble mailroom clerk at Wade Advertising. He soon would change the advertising industry, and how the industry thought about people of color. Within a year at Wade, Burrell was promoted to copywriter for brands such as Alka-seltzer and Robin Hood Flour.
Throughout his career, Burrell worked on campaigns that focused on African-Americans, however those ads simply were carbon copies of general market campaigns. Burrell strongly believed that, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people,” and took this thought to found Burrell Communications Group in 1971.
Burrell challenged the one-size-fits-all idea in advertising and helped change the way Black men and women were viewed in the media with authentic and creative portrayals.
Though it has become quite common for brands to take a stand on social issues, the advertising industry wasn’t always revolutionary. In advertising past, people of color were used as props and based on harmful stereotypes or generally omitted from campaigns. In fact, only a few short decades ago simply being Black in advertising was groundbreaking.
Cream of Wheat Ad 1921
Elliot’s White Veneer Ad 1935
GE Ad 1949
The 60s was a turning point in American history. With the Civil Rights Act being passed in 1957 and an uptick in nationwide segregation resistance, Civil Rights groups demanded agencies depict positive images of Black people.
Agencies saw the buying power of Black audiences and began to develop “Negro market departments“, featuring ads that catered to Black people in segregated communities and media. However, to activist groups, such as CORE and NAACP, segregated ads was another barrier to the goal of racial equality. To be seen as truly equal, it was important to for Black people to be shown partaking in simple and everyday things across all markets to normalize across integration in the real world.
Using the industry as a tool to propel social reform, by the mid-60s some agencies began taking steps to increase positive portrayals of Blacks through integrated ads and an increase of employees of color. This progress gave way to creative legends such as Bill Sharp and Caroline Jones, who broke racial barriers and revolutionized the industry in their own right.
We have made great strides as an industry that was once afraid to hire and portray Blacks, though we still have room to grow and evolve. It is now our duty to continue the legacy of those who came before us and advocate for varied and authentic representations of people of color in the media.
William “Bill” Sharp helped establish many careers by founding the “Basic Ad Course,” in partnership with JWT. Through this program, Sharp help mold the minds of young, motivated Black students and turned them into advertising professionals.