The (Not So) Secret Story Behind “The Secret of Selling the Negro”

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The film is a throwback to another age — clunky, ham-fisted, creepy even.

It’s been hidden in relative obscurity over last five decades, but started showing up in recent years on the occasional black streaming channel, as a focus of an installation by the artist Theaster Gates, and most recently, playing a small role in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro”.

Now that short and full versions of it are on YouTube and being passed around social media, “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market (1954)” has gained more than 7 million views on a site called 1 Million Africans: The Trilogy. Not surprisingly, most of the commenters assume they have stumbled onto a training film for the Illuminati, or at least an evil cabal of department store owners. Just another extension of the Willie Lynch mythology, this time teaching people to keep black people slaves to consumerism.

And without knowing its history that’s exactly what it looks like, a clumsy attempt to teach white retailers how to understand the particular and peculiar habits of Negro consumers, all in a bid to rid them of their hard-earned dollars.

But the origins of the film might be more surprising than the speculation.

First, its true title is “The Secret of Selling the Negro”, an unfortunate turn of phrase at best. And in some ways it was a training video, but not produced by some secret society, but by none other than Ebony magazine founder, John H. Johnson.

Made just a few years after World War II, it is the black capitalist’s version of respectability politics. An attempt to prove to white America that even though Blacks were systematically left out of many of the entitlements handed out to white folk after the War, they were still striving and succeeding. But more important they had income and good credit, and were more than willing to use it to buy the best goods and services.

In earlier years, most advertisers assumed Black consumerism was purely aspirational. In short, if whites wanted something, blacks wanted it as well, if only because whites had it. The idea that black consumers might have their own needs, patterns and preferences was not a consideration. Johnson sought to change that perception.

The copy of the film that rankles so many on Facebook and Twitter is a clip about two minutes long. The full film, however, runs around 20 minutes. I wish I could say the full version was somehow less odd, less troublesome in its full context. Rather, it’s just that much harder to watch, though clearly a product of the time and similar in tone to most industrial films of that era.

Yet, among ad industry historians it is hailed as one of the Top 10 industrial films of all time, not because it was particularly good, but because it was amazingly effective.

It would be just the first salvo in an increasingly confrontational campaign of ads and tactics Johnson would use over the next decades to challenge and prod mainstream advertisers into moving ad budgets into black publications. Or at least his black publications.

To be clear, it was a completely self-serving effort. After laying out the case for advertising directly to Negroes, the film names Ebony, Jet, Tan and Hue, all Johnson publications, as the preferred vehicles for those ad dollars. There is no mention of the hundreds of Black newspapers around the country, from which those magazines generously rewrote articles and cribbed story ideas.

The film had two very real impacts.

It ushered in a shift of the use of blacks in advertising from objects to targeted subjects. Suddenly, nannies became party hostesses, and shuffling butlers became sweater-wearing Dads who relaxed at home with a pipe and a martini. Black celebrities also benefited, with stars like Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr, Dorothy Dandridge and Nat King Cole getting the lion’s share of endorsement deals for everything from beer to TV sets.

It also made Johnson very wealthy. As the advertisers got bigger, so did the money, giving Johnson the room to expand to other business ventures. One major advertiser, Chrysler, would eventually make Johnson its first African American board member (along with 21st Century Fox, Zenith and Continental Bank), an interesting sidebar given the recent appointment of his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, as the first black board member of Tesla.

Advertisers who said “no” helped Johnson as well. He profited from the launch of subscription record and book clubs when larger companies chose not to advertise. More famously, the refusal of big makeup companies to develop products for black women sparked Johnson to launch Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

Whether Johnson is hero or villain in this scenario depends on how you view it.

On one hand, he laid the foundation for mainstream advertiser support of Black radio, Essence, Black Enterprise, and BET, among others. By some measure, if no Johnson and this film, then — maybe — no shiny images of Black success in Ebony providing inspiration. No Campus Queens. No BET Awards.

On the other, the data on Black consumer habits he provided were directly and indirectly responsible for the aggressive attempts by many brands to explore (and some would say, exploit) the black consumer market, with some brands (Salem, Newport, Kool, Colt 45) doing a 180-degree flip of its core market from white to black over time.

Whether The Secret of Selling the Negro, was an advertising innovation or some Pandora’s Box that opened the door to black community debt and materialism is up for debate.

But the fact is, at this very moment some producer/podcast host/magazine publisher/content creator, is making an updated version of the very same argument to a studio head, luxury fashion brand or premium vodka. That the Black audience, now worth several trillion dollars in spending power, is unique, worth investing in and worth marketing to.

And more than sixty years later, somebody is still saying no.

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Eric Easter is a documentary producer and chairman of the National Black Programming Consortium.

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