During the time when America was segregated, the late, great Nat King Cole’s groundbreaking television show was canceled because Madison Avenue and its clients would not sign on as sponsors. At the time he remarked, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Not only was his comment painfully correct, but also eerily prophetic, given that 50 years later Madison Avenue is still discriminating against black Americans.
The streets of Madison Avenue are like the segregated graveyards of the past, filled with generations of unrecognized black contributions, talent and ambitions. The New York City Commission on Human Rights, in successive investigations dating from 1968 to 2005, has documented the consistent pattern of racial discrimination enforced by the major ad agencies and their corporate holding companies. They control a constellation of marketing, media buying, communications, lobbying and PR firms in which there is also a dearth of African-American executives.
Now, it’s time to get agencies where it counts — their wallets. Recently, I appealed to Bill Thompson, the New York City comptroller — who manages pension funds, which collectively own some $100 million of agency holding companies’ stock and some $6 billion of 46 of their clients’ stock — to pressure the agency CEOs to end the illegal and discriminatory practices of their affiliates. Like the fight to free the blacks of South Africa, which was aided by the divestiture movement led by the institutional investor community, we must now employ the same tactic in freeing black Americans from the insidious grip of the Mad Men.
Workforce statistics and documented discrimination fail to put this flagrant and purposeful discrimination in its proper economic and societal context. In 1968, the year of the first New York City Commission on Human Rights investigation, the seminal book, The $30 Billion Negro, was published. This revealed for the first time the extent and existence of the black consumer market. In 1979, when the commission’s follow-up report declared that a condition of “de facto segregation” existed for blacks on Madison Avenue, a sequel to the book, The $70 Billion Negro, was published. So while the Mad Men and their corporate clients had no aversion to reaping black dollars, they were averse to hiring black employees and executives.
The black consumer market has since grown exponentially and is currently worth almost $1 trillion to Madison Avenue’s corporate clients, according to Target Market News. Yet, Madison Avenue continues to denigrate the importance of African Americans and their consumer dollars. Madison Avenue agencies are still “afraid of the dark.”
This prejudice, this remnant of Jim Crow, not only discriminates against black employees, executives and vendors, but also is propagated on the greater American society. It is manifest in the paucity of black leads on network TV, and in the disproportionately low use of black models in television commercials and magazine ads. It is reflected in the rate and revenue disparity Madison Avenue forces on black radio stations as documented by the Federal Communications Commission. In fact, Madison Avenue has created and perpetuated a “separate and unequal” marketing paradigm. It is evident in its advertising, workforce, executive ranks and allocation of client ad dollars.
As reported by Nielsen, black-targeted media received some $2.3 billion in 2008. This figure represented 1 percent of measured ad spending. The figures for Q1 2009 reveal the same “niggardly” level of spending being allocated to black-targeted media. Of the $1.3 billion spent by the federal government via Madison Avenue prime contractors in 2006-07, only $6.1 million found its way into black media vehicles, according to Nielsen.
When confronted with these figures, Madison Avenue agencies attempt to rationalize their policies with media gibberish about “impressions delivered” and meeting arbitrarily concocted media criteria. What is being done is the same as when blacks were declared three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. Despite Jim Crow having been declared illegal more than 40 years ago, Madison Avenue continues to enforce a condition of marketing “peonage” on black Americans and the media that serve them.
Let us not forget that one of the differences between totalitarianism and democracy is the extent to which a free media system is supported by paid advertising. Also, let us consider the historical context since Cole uttered his scathing remark. Changes include the U.S. Voting Rights Act being passed, black rule in South Africa, black CEOs running U.S. corporations, black creative expression setting the tone of America’s pop culture, and the U.S.’s first African-American president. Yet Madison Avenue refuses to lift the “cotton curtain” of discrimination.
We have had 40 years of pious pronouncements by the leaders of the industry, 40 years of investigations, reports and obfuscation, 40 years of denying the significance of the black consumer market. It is time to return the favor. It is time to make the CEOs of the holding companies pay a price with their own money, to affect their compensation packages and their company’s stock price.
Thus my appeal to Thompson. As the youngsters say, it’s all about the Benjamins.
Sanford Moore is an industry critic, former agency executive and current black talk radio co-host. He can be reached at email@example.com.