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.

@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.