When Tom Burrell became the first black man to break into Chicago advertising (which is to say, national advertising), he introduced the entire ad world to a novel concept:
“Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”
It was 1961. Seriously.
Tom started in Wade Advertising's mailroom as a college student & within 6 months he was their first black copywriter. He went on to work as a copywriter & creative director for some of the biggest agencies in the world until he later started his own.
Before he broke into the industry, brands were placing ads in Ebony Magazine praising how the 1800s were a great time for beer. Which is wonderful, except that apparently, back then, beer had it better than black people. Makes for a hard sell. Marlboro was trying to sell cigarettes to black consumers using a brooding, white cowboy with a lasso at his side. Not exactly the most historically trustworthy figure for brown-skinned people, you know?
And that’s where Tom got his biggest break. When Philip Morris approached Tom, they needed a way to do better with black consumers. So he introduced them to black culture. He showed the world what it was to be black, cool, communal, relevant and hopeful but with a history.
And when he did, EVERYONE came calling. First, it was McDonald's in 1972. And then more of the world’s biggest brands followed — Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, and P&G. And it was all because for the first time ever, black people were seeing versions of themselves on tv, in print, on billboards, and everywhere else that Tom could get them, portrayed as positive, intelligent, talented, diverse, family-oriented, worthy, and in short, REAL.
After decades of success in advertising, Tom’s retired now, but he serves as chairman emeritus for his agency, Burrell Communications, and is still active in the advertising community. Because of Tom’s work, today’s brands have recognized the value in speaking to EVERYONE in their own voice. In short, you COULD say that what Tom did changed the face of advertising, but considering how many people are only exposed to others by what they see on TV, I think there’s an argument to be made that Tom’s work actually changed the world.