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Learning From the Past: 3 Core Principles for Advertising to Black Audiences

By Krishana Davis

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Digital advertising is evolving at a rapid pace, with new placements, ad sizes and platforms launching all the time. These advancements allow us to reach very specific audience segments, but don’t tell us how to reach them effectively. Thankfully, we can learn from the past to better understand the present – and there’s no better time to reflect on the past than during Black History Month.

The advertising pioneer Tom Burrell was instrumental in subverting racist depictions of Black people in media – such as tropes of grinning Black caricatures – by focusing on positive storytelling with a “slice-of-life” approach. His work for brands like Coca-Cola and fast-food restaurants reshaped how we approach advertising to Black audiences and is still relevant even 50 years later. In a new biography about Burrell’s life, Advertising Revolutionary: The Life and Work of Tom Burrell, Jason P. Chambers uncovers three foundational practices that should be core to any campaign reaching Black audiences to this day:

  1. A Clear Values Proposition: It’s not enough for a campaign to have a goal or call-to-action. According to Burrell, campaigns need a clear values proposition that ensures that every word in the script and piece of headline copy ladders up to a moral or value the campaign seeks to convey. Sometimes this values proposition may shift slightly with the launch of a new campaign flight, but the audience should be able to uncover a basic through line in each piece of creative that showcases a clear point of view. For Burrell, every campaign he designed was led by the values proposition of “positive realism.” This style was designed to provide an alternative narrative to historical racist depictions of Black people in media. “Positive realism” depicted an authentic representation of “ordinary” Black people – highlighting that Black people didn’t need to show extraordinary talent or be a celebrity to be depicted in a positive light.
  2. Draw on Real Experiences: Data is always important, but quantitative data should not be used in a vacuum without an analysis of the real life experiences from the audience. Projects aimed at Black audiences should pull in the lived experiences from a wide set of Black people across socio-economic and class backgrounds to draw upon the richness and nuance of Black culture. In practice, this can mean utilizing focus groups and/or inviting Black practitioners to the table at the project’s inception.
  3. Niche Content Can Go Mainstream: Advancements in segmentation, especially on digital platforms, allow for media planners to reach niche audiences. But these advances often lead to an either/or approach to over segmentation. We don’t have to choose between talking to mainstream audiences or Black audiences. One of Burrell’s most popular ads “Street Song” for Coca-Cola was originally made with a Black audience in mind, but in market and focus groups performed just as well, if not better with “mainstream white audiences.” This is because Burrell’s campaigns led with human interest and shared communal values. This approach can be used as an approach for advertising campaigns.


Krishana Davis is a creative and media strategist who designs innovative and culturally responsive cross-platform campaigns that pull at audiences’ hearts and minds. As a senior vice president on the digital team at Precision, Krishana advises political and advocacy campaigns, non-profits, and businesses on how to effectively reach and persuade their audiences across platforms.

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