African Americans in American Advertising

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African Americans in American Advertising

The central historical question for this lesson is: How (and why) did images of African Americans in advertising change during the 1900s? In analyzing individual advertisements and then comparing them, students will be able to trace changing perspectives on the role of African Americans in American society.

Though students do not need specific historical understanding for this lesson, a very general understanding of the timeline of the long civil rights movement in American history will be helpful.

Please note that some of the historical documents included in this lesson depict African Americans in a demeaning and negative way; indeed, the nature of those depictions is the focus of inquiry for this unit. For this reason, this lesson will be most successful in a context where students have practice addressing sensitive topics with respect and in a spirit of academic inquiry.


In this lesson, students will:

  • Analyze primary documents, applying the historical thinking skills of close reading, sourcing, and contextualization

  • Develop understanding of the historical concepts of continuity and change, taking historical perspectives, and primary source evidence

  • Develop understanding of the media literacy concepts of purpose and audience and perspectives and values

  • Answer a historical question in writing and/or in discussion using evidence from primary documents to support their arguments

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Suggested Instructional Procedures

Note that the procedure for this lesson and for the lesson on images of women is the same. Repetition of this protocol will help students understand historical concepts and develop historical thinking skills.

1) Posing a Historical Question

The heart of this lesson is its historical question: How (and why) did images of African Americans in advertising change during the 1900s? Pose this question to students and explain that they are going to analyze historical advertisements in order to trace changing ideas about the role of African Americans in American society over the course of the twentieth century.

Remind students of the way that they analyzed contemporary advertisements (see the first lesson in this unit, What Ads Tell Us).

2) Analyzing Primary Sources

One by one, present students with the advertisements ranging from 1939 to 1987. For each document, ask students to answer the following questions:

What is the message of this advertisement?

  • To answer this question, you are asking students practice the skill of close reading. Have them pay attention to what the text (copy) of the ad says, and also what the images “say.”

Who was the intended audience for this advertisement?

  • To answer this question, you are asking students to practice the skills of contextualizing and sourcing. Have them note the publication date and, wherever possible, the publication source.

What ideas or beliefs about the role of African Americans does this ad reveal?

  • To answer this question, you are asking students to synthesize what they’ve already taken in about the document in order to interpret its meaning. Consider guiding students by asking them to generate adjectives to describe the African American figure in the advertisement, and then using those words to make a hypothesis about how society viewed African Americans at the time the ad was made.

Here are sample answers to these questions using the Monsanto ad from 1939:

What is the message of this advertisement?

  • The message of this advertisement is that the viewer should buy Monsanto products because they come from a natural source. Plastics are natural in that they come from cotton, which grows in the ground and is gathered using what a white audience in 1939 might perceive to be a “natural” form of labor with a long history (African Americans working in the fields).

Who was the intended audience for this advertisement?

  • The audience for this advertisement was likely white and sympathetic to romantic ideas about the rural South. There is no named publication for this source, but the fact that it depicts joyful children in a cotton field strongly implies that its intended audience is not African Americans, who would likely have different ideas about the reality of backbreaking agricultural labor like cotton picking.

What ideas or beliefs about the role of African Americans does this ad reveal?

  • This ad shows African Americans picking cotton, which reveals a belief in very limited roles for African American men and women. Many African Americans in 1939 were agricultural laborers, usually tenant farmers. However, for a much longer period in American history, African Americans picked cotton as enslaved people. While it is likely too strong to argue that the creators of this advertisement were endorsing slavery, the lack of concern for that painful history, and the fact that the people depicted in the field appear so happy, show that African American figures in this advertisement were of interest to its creators and to its viewers only as props, not as people.

Note that there are six ads included in this lesson, and asking each student to analyze each ad may take too long. One option might be to present each ad briefly in a slideshow, and then “jigsaw” the analysis task by assigning one or two ads to various groups of students, who can then present their findings to the class. Another option would be to cut down on the number of ads you present. A final option, of course, would be to spend more than one hour on the lesson.

3) Answering the Question

To complete this lesson, students must answer the central historical question by making a historical claim and supporting that claim with evidence from the documents. Teachers can ask students to do this in discussion or in writing (or both). The question asks: How (and why) did images of African Americans in American advertising change during the 1900s?

In general, readers of the documents used in this lesson will find that images of African Americans changed over the course of the 1900s to gradually depict more varied roles for Black men and women, reflecting a corresponding expansion of possibilities for them in American life -- including, of course, their increased share in the consumer market. The earliest ads, such as those for Monsanto and Schenley’s Cream of Kentucky, portray African American men and women occupying servile roles in attitudes evocative of a romanticized South and a minstrel show, respectively. The 1960 Northern Pacific Railway ad presents a more respectful depiction of a kindly older African American man, but he too is clearly marked as a servant by his porter’s cap reading “Attendant.” The Budweiser ad from 1963 is the first in this group of documents to show African Americans as consumers of the product being advertised, and indeed the affluent people portrayed enjoying themselves in the ad contrast in almost every way with their counterparts in earlier advertisements. The figure depicted in the Celanese Fortrel Polyester ad is not only someone to be emulated by the viewer, but a specific someone to be admired as a role model: Hank Aaron, the famous baseball player. Finally, the 1987 ARCO Chemical Company ad is the first in this group to portray Black and white people together -- though they are children, which may suggest a certain lingering timidity on the part of the ad’s creator to depict interracial relationships.

To help students answer the “why” part of the central historical question, ask students to consider historical context. Why might depictions of African Americans in the media have changed between the 1940s and 1960s? In answering this question, push students to identify not only the civil rights movement, but also to remember that advertising’s purpose is to sell products. As the twentieth century progressed, advertisers targeted African Americans as separate consumer market.