15 Classic Campaigns From African-American Creatives That Helped Shape Advertising

From the '70s to today, this work impacted culture

The work spans brands, styles and decades. Photo Illustration: Amber McAden

Conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion—or, more pointedly, the lack thereof—have become a regular occurrence in the ad industry. Unfortunately, less attention is paid to the monumental creative accomplishments made by people of color throughout the discipline’s history. The work they’ve produced over the past 50-plus years has played a vital role in defining advertising as we know it today, even if most of their names are not as well-known as those of other industry icons.

“We have these same conversations [around diversity in advertising], and there seems to be no traction, but those conversations are easy to sell,” said VCU Brandcenter executive director and former JWT Atlanta CCO Vann Graves. “Whereas where there are successes, they’re rarely celebrated.”

As the first entry in an ongoing series, Adweek reached out to a group of black creatives, young and seasoned alike, to choose classic campaigns co-created by men and women of color that changed the advertising landscape, influencing both contemporaries and generations to come. The list below barely scratches the surface and is by no means comprehensive—nor could it be—but it’s a start.

We hope it also makes a larger point: The ad industry should not limit celebrations of work produced by African-Americans to the 28 days of Black History Month each year.

Coca-Cola, “Hilltop,” McCann Worldgroup (1971)

Graves cited Coca-Cola’s timeless 1971 “Hilltop” ad as particularly influential and recalled singing the jingle in nursery school. But the song now associated with Don Draper was co-written by Billy Davis, a black singer/songwriter who penned hits for the likes of Etta James and Jackie Wilson before heading to McCann, where he became svp, music director and wrote commercial jingles featuring Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among many others.

“Advertisers today hope to be able to have something go viral like that,” Graves said.

“It was I think a message of peace,” he added, noting that Coca-Cola helped cover funeral costs following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination several years earlier. “That’s Coca-Cola making that commitment to the African-American community.”

In 1964, after Georgia elite refused to respond to invitations to an integrated dinner honoring King for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Coca-Cola CEO J. Paul Austin threatened to move the company’s headquarters out of Atlanta in a story that ran on the front page of The New York Times. The dinner quickly sold out following his ultimatum.

In a later interview with NPR, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who attended the dinner, quoted Austin as saying, “Coca-Cola cannot stay in a city that’s going to have this kind of reaction and not honor a Nobel Peace Prize winner.”

“When I think about [Hilltop], it’s not a spot, it’s a point in time and a commitment to community that you don’t see [from] brands,” Graves said. “That’s why it means more because it’s a brand that stood for something, that created a piece of creative that stood for something, that an African-American was a key part of that story, which adds to the legitimacy of it.”

Following the popularity of the “Hilltop” ad, the South African government asked to use a version of the spot without black actors. Coca-Cola refused and later sold its assets in the country.

Pillsbury, “Say Hello to Poppin’ Fresh Dough,” Leo Burnett Chicago (1972)

Carol H. Williams was among the original wave of African-Americans to join the Chicago agency scene, and her creative breakthrough came via the below campaign for the Pillsbury brand. Copywriter Rudy Perz first developed Poppin’ Fresh, who was designed to promote the company’s line of refrigerated products, but Williams created the signature giggle that humanized a character that appeared in more than four decades’ worth of ads.

Secret, “Strong Enough for a Man, but Made for a Woman,” Leo Burnett Chicago (1982)

Williams became the second black woman and very first black female creative inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2017, nearly 50 years after she got her first agency job as a copywriter at Leo Burnett Chicago.

Perhaps even more significant was Williams’ development of the Secret tagline, “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” which boosted sales of the P&G antiperspirant and still appears in various forms today. This broadcast spot from 1982 is particularly notable for being one of two Secret ads to feature an all-black cast.

Band-Aid, “I Am Stuck on Band-Aid,” Y&R (1975)

Barry Manilow’s biggest hit may be “Copacabana,” but he also penned some of the longest-running commercial jingles in history, including this classic for the J&J bandage behemoth.

Among his collaborators on the campaign was African-American Y&R art director Harry Webber, who spent more than three decades in the ad industry producing work for such brands as Ford, P&G, Heinz and Chase.

Derek Walker, the founder of South Carolina’s brown and browner advertising who used his Twitter feed to highlight talent of color every day of this year’s Black History Month, said Webber “played a huge part” in developing both the Band-Aid work and “The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the iconic PSA series created by Y&R in collaboration with the Ad Council to promote the United Negro College Fund in 1972.

The Band-Aid campaign has spanned decades, and Y&R won a Clio award for this 1975 version.

Coca-Cola, “Coke Adds Life,” Burrell Communications (1978)

Seven years after both “Hilltop” and the founding of Chicago’s Burrell Communications, Coca-Cola turned to the multicultural agency for a “Coke Adds Life” campaign.

When asked about his earliest influences, Amusement Park chairman and CCO Jimmy Smith, who began his career at Burrell before stints at Wieden + Kennedy, BBDO, TBWA\Chiat\Day and more, immediately responded: “That Coca-Cola joint from Burrell Communications where they’re singing on the steps from 1978.”

“That’s the one that got me hyped about advertising,” added Smith. “Well, one of them.”

Converse and Sears, “Converse Makes ‘Em, but Sears Gives ‘Em Soul,” FCB (1977)

Smith also cited another late ’70s crossover promo between Sears and Converse led by fellow BBDO veteran Phil Gant. Below is a print component of the campaign, which also included a fully animated broadcast spot.

“You had to get a pair of Converse All-Stars from Sears just because of that commercial,” Smith said.

“It was one of the first things I ever wrote and produced,” said Gant, who was then a young copywriter at the agency that would become FCB. “We did Sears retail, [and] the ‘Sears gives ’em soul’ spot put me on the map at FCB.”

Gant told Adweek that “there were no African-American creatives to speak of until the civil rights movement began nudging.” He was “one of a handful hired by large agencies after the Martin Luther King Jr. killing” when shops were “hot to be seen as liberal and progressive.” The longtime copywriter and creative director added that this was “not for business reasons, mind you!”

Kentucky Fried Chicken, “We Do Chicken Right,” Mingo-Jones (1979)

In 1979, Kentucky Fried Chicken turned to Mingo-Jones, the agency co-founded by industry pioneer Caroline R. Jones, to craft campaigns targeting the African-American market.

The resulting “We Do Chicken Right” slogan proved so successful that the brand decided to run it nationally for 10 years beginning in 1981.

“While much of the national work at the time still featured primarily white models, the move to implement the slogan nationally also reflected a shift in brands becoming open to incorporating diverse casting in their national campaign work,” said Candace Queen, founder of Queen Creative Group and Blacks in Advertising.

“Over the span of that decade, KFC began to include more people of color in their casting. The adoption of the slogan at the national level also reinforced the idea that black-owned agencies in the U.S. could create work that resonated with audiences beyond the African-American market.”

Nike, “Hare Jordan,” Wieden + Kennedy Portland (1992)

One way athletic wear giant Nike cemented a relationship with the African-American community was through the long-standing presence of Michael Jordan as the public face of its brand.

In 1992, Jordan was at the height of his fame, and this Super Bowl spot from Wieden + Kennedy combined live action and animation in groundbreaking ways, predating the smash film Space Jam by four years. (Director Joe Pytka would go on to helm that movie.)

The art director on this campaign was Darryl McDonald, who now goes by Seiko Angelo. He was also the first black creative hired at W+K.

“Although I helped out in post-production and was responsible for the cartoon graphics and look and feel of subsequent deliverables (including a really nifty varsity jacket for all involved), the bulk of the credit has to go to copywriter (and creative partner at the time) Jim Riswold, who spearheaded the advert,” said Angelo.

He continued, “Although I happened to be the first black creative hired at Wieden+Kennedy, race never played a factor in the development of the work. I was never called on to provide a ‘black perspective,’ for example. It was purely about creating great work to a high standard that had a broad appeal.”

Sprite, “Obey Your Thirst,” Burrell Communications (1994)

As hip-hop truly began to hit the mainstream in the early ’90s, Burrell Communications became one of the first shops to tap into that crucial culture with a series of ads for Sprite that featured artists like Nas and A Tribe Called Quest as part of the brand’s “Obey Your Thirst” campaign.

CCO Lewis Williams said that the work “took Sprite and attached it to hip-hop,” shaping a brand association that extends through the modern day. “That’s how black culture, black agencies and black talent have affected the brand,” he told Adweek. “As hip-hop grew, their alliance with the brand grew, and Sprite has a place to be in how they exist in the soda world.”

Burrell’s approach was so successful that Sprite began to interchange media placement of the ads with its general market “Image Is Nothing” campaign and vice-versa, a move that helped familiarize mainstream audiences with hip-hop.

“Once you influence culture, it finds its way back into advertising,” Williams explained. “That’s what hip-hop did.”

The campaign’s approach not only shaped Sprite’s advertising for decades but also influenced advertising’s broader embrace of hip-hop culture. Williams pointed out celebrity rappers’ prominence in Super Bowl spots for Pepsi, Doritos and Mercedes-Benz that featured Cardi B, Lil Jon, Chance the Rapper and Ludacris, respectively.

He added that ads representing “the little things that the community sees every day … may not win awards, but those are the ones that are most important.”

Nike, “Freestyle,” Wieden + Kennedy Portland (2001)

Jimmy Smith remains best-known for his Nike work at Wieden + Kennedy, with current New York ecd Karl Lieberman calling it “one of the reasons I do this for a living.”

“I co-created Nike Freestyle with [creative directors] Hal Curtis and Tim Hanrahan in 2001. Paul Hunter directed it,” Smith said. “But you gotta dap Dr. J, too—not the basketball player, but [former global ecd] John C. Jay.”

The ad has reportedly been screened in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture but was shut out at Cannes the year it was released despite universal acclaim from U.S. viewers.

As one disappointed delegate said, “The genius of it is in the way it sells this second generation of rougher basketball players as ballet dancers.” Perhaps that loss is a lesson in the disconnect between consumers and awards show juries.

Reebok, “Answer V,” Arnell Group (2001)

As Burrell noted, the relationship between advertising and hip-hop has only grown stronger over time.

I’m from Philly, and I’m a huge Sixers fan, so Allen Iverson is a living icon for me,” said John “JP” Petty III, head of social strategy at Wieden + Kennedy New York of the below Reebok spot. “The ad that I really remember was one he did with Jadakiss and Trackmasters, the production duo responsible for some of my favorite hip-hop and contemporary R&B.”

He added, “To see those two worlds come together, sneakers and hip-hop, really resonated with me. I had it recorded on a VHS, [and] I would run it back and run it back. It changed the game for me. It didn’t even really feel like an ad, which was the most important thing because I’m not an ad geek. I didn’t go to Brandcenter, I grew up in the hood watching the Sixers. And I didn’t know it at the time, but a young Steve Stoute was partly responsible for that [campaign]. When I got a chance to work at Translation … during the onboarding, they played that work, and I knew why I was there.”

Xbox 360, “Halo 3: Believe,” TAG McCann (2007)

This campaign, co-led by then-McCann TAG CCO and Saturday Morning co-founder Geoff Edwards, promoted a different sort of product by using a very unexpected musical genre to dramatic effect—specifically, Frederic Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude Op. 28 No. 15.”

“Still to this day, I get a little misty-eyed when I watch it,” said Smith, who chose the spot as one of his favorites. “If Geoff had done nothing else in his career, he could eat off that joint. Fortunately, he’s a bad mofo, so coming up with more dope shit has never been a problem for the brother.”

The ad has also inspired Reddit threads debating its soundtrack selection and calling it one of history’s best video game campaigns.

Gatorade, “What Is G?,” TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles (2009)

This PepsiCo sports drink rebrand, narrated by Lil Wayne, was not an inherently African-American campaign, but it did feature black empowerment imagery from a wide range of athletes such as Derek Jeter, Dwyane Wade and Muhammad Ali.

Jimmy Smith called it the product of “the most racially diverse group of creatives in advertising history.”

That group included current HP global ecd Jayanta Jenkins, Vice group creative director Donna Lamar, copywriter Kamal Robinson, Ogilvy ecd Patrick Almaguer, BBDO senior creative director Blake Kidder, Media Arts Lab global CCO Brent Anderson, MullenLowe svp Steve Howard, Fox Sports creative director Javier Castillo, 72andSunny group creative director Paul Nguyen, Facebook design director Doug Alves, Smith himself and the legendary Lee Clow.

State Farm, “Hot Tub,” Translation (2010)

This was the work to beat in the hallways for some time,” said W+K’s Petty, who joined Translation in 2013 as social media content manager. It also inspired a series of “remixes” from YouTubers, and Petty said subsequent campaigns were more “intentionally designed to be lifted in that way.”

Translation founder Steve Stoute has also spoken to hip-hop’s influence on both advertising and mainstream culture. He describes “The Tanning of America” in a 2011 book explaining how millennial culture crosses the boundaries of previous generations.

“I never wanted Translation to be a ‘black’ agency. I wanted it to be an agency that did great work that appealed to young adults,” he told Adweek at the time.

He pointed to this State Farm “Like a Good Neighbor” ad as exemplifying the approach, saying, “That is work that speaks to this cross-cultural phenomenon that’s taking place. I think that hip-hop has played a very big role in being a catalyst to cause that.”

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.