Dr. Jason Chambers explains the origins of racist brands
Season four has arrived, and my first guest is Dr. Jason Chambers of the University of Illinois. The theme for this season will be a bit looser than past seasons, but I’m hoping to get perspectives on the social impact of brands and branding. In other words, are brands a good thing for society, overall? In light of what’s happened in 2020—the pandemic, protests for racial justice, increasingly extreme weather as a result of climate change, and even the U.S. presidential election—this topic felt relevant.
I first heard Dr. Chambers on 1A, a podcast from WAMU that’s distributed by NPR, where he talked about “reckoning with racist brands” like Aunt Jemima and the Washington, D.C., NFL team. I was excited to talk to Dr. Chambers in a little more detail about these brand names, where they come from, why they should change, and how to change them.
Symbols are simply shorthand. They’re like a logo or a trade character.” And in the case of brands like Aunt Jemima, they “happen to utilize the shorthand that’s based around racial and ethnic stereotypes.”
Dr. Jason Chambers
Dr. Chambers’s research is focused on the history of African Americans in the advertising industry, a topic about which he’s written a book: Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry. Given his expertise, I also wanted to get his take on diversity in the agency world.
I don’t often interview professors on the show (which makes sense, given it’s a show about “how brands are built”), but I had so much fun talking to Dr. Chambers and exploring his in-depth knowledge of these subjects; I hope this is not the last time I host an academic or professor on the show.
To hear more from Dr. Chambers, I encourage you to check out the episode of 1A he joined, “Reckoning With Racist Brands.” You can also find his opinions in publications like Ad Age, Adweek, CNN, Forbes, Black Enterprise, and The New York Times. He’s written another book, too: Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship. Lastly, you can of course find him on the University of Illinois website and LinkedIn.
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
Click above to listen to the episode, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or elsewhere to hear every episode of How Brands Are Built.
- Squadhelp. To begin a business name contest with hundreds of business naming experts, check out their services to get a fresh perspective on your company.
Disclosure: Some links in this post may be affiliate links, meaning How Brands Are Built receives a commission if you make a purchase through the links, at no cost to you. Please read our disclaimer for more information.
ROB MEYERSON: Dr. Chambers, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast.
DR. JASON CHAMBERS: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
R: You’re an Associate Professor of Advertising at the University of Illinois. So, I’d love to just start by asking a little bit about your career path. How did you decide to study advertising and the history of the advertising industry?
J: Sure. Thank you. Excellent question. The reason why I got into advertising, actually, all my degrees are in history. I’ve never actually worked in the advertising industry. My path to studying advertising came from an interest in African American business history. Looking at African Americans as entrepreneurs and owners of various kinds of businesses. Initially, I didn’t focus on advertising. But as my graduate career wore on toward the end, I gained more interest in studying the history of consumers, why people bought things, how people bought things, what kinds of arguments were used to get people to buy things, and how those arguments have changed over time. That naturally led me to a greater focus on advertising.
From my dissertation and focus area of study, I combined that interest in consumer messaging and African American business enterprise. That led me to my dissertation, which subsequently became my first book which studies African American entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives within the advertising industry. African Americans not so much as subjects of the advertisements or within an advertisement, but as owners of agencies and creators behind advertisements.
R: Let’s talk a little bit about that book. It’s Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry. Can you just tell a little bit more about how you went about conducting the research that went into that book and give the listeners a little bit of an idea of what they’ll learn reading that?
J: Sure. It’s a combination of archival research that goes into various archives in the United States—in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Chicago. It’s archival research combined with personal interviews that I conducted with people like Tom Burrell, who’s an African American adman legend pioneer out of Chicago. Individuals like that, and it looks at our history in and within advertising. Going back to the 19teens because I wanted to see, okay, what was the first instance I can find of an African American who called himself or herself operating an advertising agency.
I let them define that. I let them use their own terms rather than looking back at business myself and saying, well, that was an advertising agency even though they didn’t use that term. No, I wanted to find—as far as I could—that first instance of somebody operating an advertising agency. That sent me back to the 19teens, then I just traced that story forward of African Americans’ efforts to diversify the advertising industry. It ties together elements from the media, so looking at African American owned magazines like Ebony and Jet magazines, and how they tried to acquire advertising. It combines that story of African American media with African American efforts at becoming entrepreneurs and agency owners through and throughout the 20th Century.
It looks as well at governmental activities. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Federal government involvement, local government involvement primarily in New York, Chicago, and a few other cities. It really tries to tell that broad story of African Americans’ efforts to gain a foothold and success in advertising. From about the 19teens to about the early 1990s. The late 1990s is where I ended the story.
R: It’s clear—as you’re talking about it—just how complex that is. Getting to the government side of it, the entrepreneurship side of it, and all that history that you must have had to try to dig into. I’m curious, not to try to oversimplify it too much because it’s literally a book’s worth of information. Historically, are there eras or phases that you would break that history up into to say that this is how things have changed in the decades of those 19teens up to even now. I assume you’re still interested in the 1990s and how things have changed since then. I’m curious also—looking in the 2010s and going forward—do you feel there have been other phases or eras that we’re seeing now?
J: Sure. I break it up into the 19teens to the late 1920s efforts to gain any foothold whatsoever in and within advertising. African Americans primarily operating agencies, selling their services to other African American owned businesses. You get a bit of a hiccup during the 1930s into the mid-1940s because of the Great Depression. From the 1950s to about the 1970s, it’s very much an African American media-driven argument, in which you have successful African American publications like Ebony and Jet are able to sell their millions of copies worth of issues on a monthly basis, so you’ve got that.
In the 1960s through the early 1970s, you could add to that media era. You could add the era of pressure being brought to bear by African American civil rights organizations, which would have been followed up and supported by some of the government organizations that I mentioned earlier. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, both of which looked significantly at the advertising industry. Activists being interested in using advertisements, push forth arguments about racial integration, not social integration, but racial integration and desegregation.
The late 1960s into the early 1970s is a period of what I call the Golden Age of African Americans in advertising. That’s the high point of training programs and recruitment programs that are designed to attract African Americans to the industry, to increase the numbers of African Americans in advertising, and it opens the door for a real plethora of African American owned agencies. A number of which are still with us are the major agencies that currently exist that are African American owned. Many of them were founded in that particular period.
The 1970s into about the 1980s is the period of African American marketing. That’s the period of which when you talked about—we didn’t use the phrase multicultural marketing or multicultural advertising. It was really an African American story. As we get to the mid, late-1980s, as we begin to add the Hispanic advertising community. I’ll use the term they used. I know we don’t use Hispanic as broadly as they did then, but just using their term. The Hispanic advertising community started to emerge in the mid- to late-1980s. That’s the period in which we start to get to multicultural marketing or Hispanic advertising and marketing in the late 1980s into the late 1990s early 2000s.
And then the period now we’re into, which is we’re calling it total marketing. It’s the phrasing of the time period. That’s been going on since the 2010s, 2012, 2014. Somewhere around there, we began to see that. A lessening of the specific emphasis on—as broadly as we once did—racial and ethnically targeted and focused advertising.
R: Got it. How do you characterize where we are now in the agency world from a diversity standpoint? I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify it, or just qualitatively speaking, how are we doing from a diversity standpoint?
J: Quantifying it is difficult for a variety of reasons. Many things, of course, that have happened is when you get into the early 1970s when we first begin to see the emergence of the concept of the holding company. Prior to the holding company your advertising agencies were independent. Leo Burnett was Leo Burnett, BBDO was BBDO, DDB was DDB.
R: Now they’re all Omnicom.
J: Exactly. That’s a wonderful point. When they’re all independent, the business can make decisions. The company can make decisions without any oversight. Obviously, you got the overside of your board, and you got the overside of your owners. If you’re publicly held, you’re in business to help make money for your shareholders, of course. But you can act as you define yourself as needing to act.
Again, if you’re Leo Burnett, you do what you do in Chicago, and DDB is over here doing what they do over in New York. When you have that, you’ve got more availability of numbers. If you go back to the early 1970s, you can see advertising agencies, for example, publishing their numbers on diversity. Now, it’s done under pressure. But you can go back and see that in the Advertising Age. This is Young & Rubicam’s numbers of African American employees in its New York office. That information was wildly available. I mean it’s broadly available, relatively speaking.
Now the holding companies—finding that information, gaining access to the kind of data (even in that cursory level) is very, very difficult. It’s nigh on impossible. That’s one of the interesting things that I’m waiting to see of our current moment. Here within the last few weeks and months of 2020 with a number of agencies saying and making public pronouncements on “hey, these are our numbers. Hey, we need to do better. Hey, this should be different.”
I’ll be interested to see one, what numbers get published, and how those numbers are broken down. Are they sublimated for the mass of the holding company? Or do we get really granular detail for each agency within the holding company? Because if a holding company, for example, just publishes its percentage of African American employees or under-represented groups. If we don’t know where that’s at, all those people could be at one agency. I’m being facetious for the purposes of making a point, but it could all be at one agency. We don’t know.
I’ll be interested to see how granular we get with that detail now that we exist primarily in the business within this holding company model.
J: That’s what I’ll be interested to see, and I’ll be interested as well to see how consistent is it.
R: From holding company to holding company, you mean? Or how consistent across agencies within a holding company?
J: Across agencies. Yes. Not every agency has stepped up and made a public statement, but a number of them have. From those that have, okay, is it just the 2020 saying? Is it just an August 2020 thing? Or are you going to be on a consistent schedule that every year, we’re going to be able to track and tell and see how you have done?
I don’t know if you saw the Advertising Age today. But Advertising Age today essentially had an article on why change hasn’t worked. The article is essentially about why social change hasn’t worked in the advertising agency business.
R: And what was the takeaway?
J: The takeaway was—from one of my colleagues—the ad industry doesn’t really want to change. Here it is, “Why Ad Industry Activism Isn’t Working” (pay wall) was the title of the article. It’s essentially because the advertising industry doesn’t want to change. That’s the takeaway. My rejoinder to my colleague who brought up the article to me was, “Wow, we’ve spent an entire few weeks trying to change and nothing has happened. Let’s just go on to other business.”
R: For someone who has researched this going back to the 19teens, a few weeks can’t feel like a long time.
J: It all takes time. We’ve seen the state of hire. I don’t say this with any critique or criticism inherent in it, but we’ve seen the hiring of chief diversity officers, equity officers, and the likes. Depending upon what people are able to do from those positions, that’s the opportunity for change. It just struck me as a little bit disheartening to be a few weeks into this, so to speak, and we’re already writing articles, asking the question, or addressing the point of why it’s not working.
R: Good point. It would be nice to see some of the pronouncements that these agencies have made to see what happens over the next couple of months and years as to whether they are really going to act on these statements.
J: Because the thing is you’re not just talking about a change in the numbers of people, the numbers of employees, and the groups of people that you have within your agency. You’re talking about an overall culture shift. You’re talking about a change in culture. And any time you try to change that, that’s extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming because it’s asking you to change a lot of things that you don’t even realize need changing. It takes time.
I tried to change the other day from using the Chrome Browser to Safari because I heard Safari on Apple had better privacy protection. After a couple of weeks, I was just like, I just don’t like change. I’ve been using Chrome forever, and I just went back to Chrome. It was just easier to keep doing what I was doing. Why? Because it was just taking me too long to make the shift.
It’s one thing if I just shift back to what I was doing as just a private citizen messing with his web browsers. It’s another if I say I’m trying to change the culture and environment of my agency, let alone my industry. That takes a lot longer.
R: Right. But the point being there’s inertia here inherently. Maybe the headline of that article shouldn’t have been that it isn’t working. Maybe the takeaway shouldn’t have been that the industry doesn’t want to change. I don’t know whether or not that’s true. But it sounds like what you’re saying is, either way, there’s going to be inertia that’s going to make it difficult even if people do want to change, and it’s going to take quite a while potentially.
J: Yeah, absolutely. Unless people see the monetary reason for it, it’s the kind of thing that without organizational impetus that is the kind of thing that eventually will fall by the wayside because we’re not making a monetary argument about it. Without that, it has the potential. I’m not saying that it has—that was my colleague’s cynical takeaway that the industry doesn’t want to change. I think that’s probably a little bit too far. It was probably a Monday morning cynicism getting the best of them, quite fairly.
Inertia is a thing. It takes a lot to turn a big ship as they, right?
R: Speaking of things that seem to take too long to change, one of the other broad topics I wanted to get your take on—and that’s been in the news a lot lately—is these brands like Aunt Jemima and the Washington Football Team that have really relied historically and I guess currently (to some degree) on racist stereotypes or imagery.
I’d first heard you on another podcast—1A—speaking to this idea. I just wanted to get your take on why these brands exist. I understand that racism exists and so that’s part of the answer. But why did these brands use these stereotypes and imagery, to begin with? And then, to your point about inertia, why has it taken (it seems to me) so incredibly long for them to change despite (in many cases) decades of push back from activists.
J: Sure. I think there are a couple of reasons. Let me take the first part of your question first, which use why these symbols at all? Symbols are simply shorthand. They’re like a logo or a trade character. It’s a way for every consumer to recognize my brand in the marketplace without me having to take 6, 8, 10, or 12 paragraphs if we think about when these symbols were created back in the world of print advertising—even before radio becomes a thing.
These symbols become shorthand, the stereotype about the group of people for which the symbol is being utilized, in this case, African Americans. Even within all of the racist tropes that had existed about African Americans—then or now—there are certain areas at which African Americans are stereotyped to be good at. Stereotyped to be expert at.
If we just step back and just (off the top our head) listed stereotypes about African Americans, where they’re good at sports—particularly basketball, they’re fast, they’re tall, they’re good dancers, or they’re good at music. We could list categories of life, of areas of operation which the stereotype—though it exists and aspects of a racist in and of themselves—are taken to be perceived to be good at sports and the like. If you turn the clock back to the early 20th century, the late 19th century, cooking would have been one of those for African Americans as well. They’re good cooks.
You combine in that stereotype of good cook, expertise, service, authenticity, and quality. If I’ve got a quality cook who has a recipe for pancakes, we’ve been able to mirror that recipe in the box and then we surround that in the wrapper of an old Black mammy in the old South who served her famous pancake recipe to, not quite the slave owner because of the time that’s created slavery is over, but this White master—in the old South kind of model. That stereotype, that sense of authenticity, that sense of quality that’s conveyed in that idea is conveyed to the brand itself. We wrap the rest in the story of the old South and all of that foolishness.
And then you can see the same thing for other brands. Land O’ Lakes butter and margarine. If we want to convey the quality of our ingredients, we utilize this Native American image. Because who are the people that are closest to the land and really typify this sense of authentic connection to manufacture and the making of an agricultural product. I can simply use Native Americans to convey that natural imagery, this connection that I want to make.
It works the same way for a lot of different groups if you go back far enough. I talk about this in one of the classes I teach. In fact, persons of Scottish ancestry were the stereotype about them was they were penny-pinching. They didn’t like to spend. They knew the value of a cent if you will. A bank might want to use that to convey its financial wherewithal. Or if you think about a brand, it still exists.
Old Dutch Cleanser with stereotyping Dutch people as so hyper-clean. They’re fastidious about their cleanliness. We utilize this image of this old Dutch person. It’s primarily a woman because of the trade characters in a dress. Old Dutch Cleanser is of such quality that it’s favored by these persons that we all know to be hyper-clean and fastidious about their cleanliness. The stereotypes become shorthand for advertising and for marketing.
R: In almost every case, I assume—this is probably going to sound like an ignorant question—it’s not a Dutch company that created that brand. For example, this is primarily companies run by White people selling to other White people but trading on these stereotypes to try to appeal to those mostly White consumers to get them to think of the product as having certain qualities?
J: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s a kind of ethnicity as authenticity or ethnicity as quality. We utilize that to attract the consumer for the same reasons that we strive to attract the consumer at any time. I’m trying to get you to pause in that 5, 10, 15, or 30 seconds that I have you long enough for my advertising and marketing message to get into your head. So you make the decision I want you to make when you go to the store, so to speak. It’s just that I happen to utilize the shorthand in this example. I happen to utilize the shorthand that’s based around racial and ethnic stereotypes.
R: Why has it taken them so long to change? I get that maybe decades ago, maybe a hundred years ago, that was seen as more acceptable by the culture at large in the United States and maybe other parts of the world. It seems to me that—for the majority of my lifetime—a lot of people have recognized the offensive nature of a lot of these brands.
Why don’t they change? I suppose a part of that is inertia like you said, and part of it is just money, but why don’t they? And then now, it looks like a lot of them are or maybe will be as a result of recent events. What do you think keeps them from changing? And then if this is a tipping point of some sort, why now as opposed to any other time?
J: I’ll give you an answer based on two areas—money and people. The money is a simple answer. Let’s go with the people first. Think about it this way. Most businesses, if whatever you’re doing is working and you’re meeting your financial goals, let’s say. If you’re meeting your financial goals, you don’t really have reason to change. If you’re selling all the donuts that you want to sell, why change the recipe? Change your recipe for what? Maybe try to change to save money. But outside of some external impetus, you don’t have a reason to change how you’re doing business.
Think about a large corporation like Quaker, PepsiCo, or something like that. I’ll just use the clumsy phrasing: You’re the brand manager or you’re the marketing manager. Let’s say you want to change. You come to the company hoping you’re going to work on the Aunt Jemima brand and the like. You want to change. You don’t necessarily like it, but you know it’s effective. You know its success. You know that it occupies most of the space, the store shelves of the pancake mix, or pancake waffle mix aisle.
If you don’t have a reason to change, what person who wants to keep their job is going to come in and say to the company, hey, I know we’ve got something that’s working over here. But for these social reasons, I think we ought to change it. That’s a pretty quick way to probably find in yourself on the way out the door because who wants to change what’s working?
For a lot of companies, particularly ones with decades-old brands and a lot of stability in the area in which they operate—in this example, the pancake mix—you don’t have a reason to change because you’re not going to change your marketplace and space that much. If anything, you probably look and say our greatest danger is probably losing space.
You don’t want to be the one to walk into the meeting and say, hey, let’s take a chance and let’s lose space. Let’s lose consumer loyalty. I always go back to a quote from a businessman, an advertising executive who works at the Ted Bates agency back in the 1960s in which he was being asked about or he was respodning the questions about, essentially, how the company was responding to the calls from civil rights activists, for change and the like, and so forth.
In a moment of what I like to think was candor, he said, “You must realize that the businessman doesn’t wish to antagonize anybody, even the bigot.” What I want to do is I just want to sell stuff. If you keep the people part of it first, if you want to keep your job—unless you have an external reason or financial reason for calling and pressing your company to change, you’re probably going to leave it alone because you’re meeting your goals. As long as you’re meeting your goals, everybody’s happy.
Then that gets us back to the money part. If the money part is still good, if the money part is not changing. Again, if you’re meeting those financial numbers, then what external impetus do you have for change? You could change the formula to save a little money, but that doesn’t change the name. You could change the packaging some way, but that doesn’t change the name either. You’ve made the adjustments to a trade character, you made those a couple of decades. You took off the handkerchief and the like but still got the African American woman, you still got the name.
The money has to change. The money can only change in a couple of ways. The leading one of which is simple, consumers desire not to purchase your brand anymore. When you have to respond to that, then that changes things or you get unique a social moment like what we had this summer. You get a unique social movement around which people of varying demographic considerations—race, age, geography, education, all the things we might use in a basic demographic breakdown—seem to be united around a similar idea of anti-racism, anti-stereotype particularly as it relates to African Americans.
In the advertising and branding world you—as a brand like Aunt Jemima—stand as one of the leading examples of being offensive. Now, instead of having that person who wanted those changes all those years ago, walk into the meeting and say, we should change this successful brand, this successful trade character for financial reasons. Those don’t exist, but now you’ve got social reasons that exist that are obviously tied to money.
But you’ve got social reasons that exist because you’ve got people saying, “I’m not going to buy your brand. You’re an example of things that are wrong in this country.” Then you’ve got the power to make those changes.
R: I know it’s too soon to tell. Do you worry at all or think that some of these companies have said that they’re going to change these brands, but they’re obviously trying to get out ahead of this. Some of them came out quite early (it seems to me), very late in many respects, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and some of the protesting online. There was almost like dominos of these brands saying we’re going to get rid of this brand or we’re changing it. And yet, I was in the grocery store a couple of days ago and Aunt Jemima is still on the shelf. Clearly, they weren’t so concerned that they recalled it or anything like that.
Do you wonder if they’re just floating this and saying it because they recognize that they could be in a little bit of hot water if they don’t? But then they’re actually going to follow the money, and if they don’t see it dip in sales on this brand, they may renege on that offer. What’s really going to happen here? Do you expect these brands to disappear?
J: I think if social media didn’t exist, then yes. If this was a moment that was reliant on traditional media, then yes. Because if it was reliant on significant attention from The New York Times, Washington Post, or Fox News or some major media entity; as we know, the news day and the news sites, and headlines change every—not even 24 hours anymore back when CNN started, it’s a lot faster than that. If it was reliant only on that, then I would say, yeah, maybe because then you would need those major media organs to keep their eye on that particular ball and bring it back before consumers again and again and again.
You don’t have to have that anymore. Things like your podcast show that. We love the phrase influencers now. People can have influence well beyond the major mainstream media. People can follow other people. I can make my grocery list depending upon somebody that I follow on YouTube. How to go grocery shopping and be a non-racist?
I didn’t have to read the article in The New York Times. I simply download the list of brands to avoid and then I go through the grocery aisle and I don’t buy those things. It doesn’t have to be a national organized mass media-driven thing anymore. It can be driven by a few individuals, interested parties, and groups on social media. They don’t even have to all be united together and speak about this on the Zoom meeting coordinating activities. No. The thing can just be trending on Twitter or something like that.
Without that, then yes, I would worry about it. But social media allows the attention to remain on the topic even when it has disappeared from the mainstream media. When Ad Age and Adweek, for example, if we just think about the advertising trade press, when they’re no longer covering it, social media keeps it up. Blogs keep it up. Podcasts keep it up. Facebook keeps it up. Twitter keeps it up. TikTok keeps it up until it’s totally banned, right? TikTok keeps it up.
People can keep it in front of people and continue to hold brands, the feet of brands—specifically those that have taken a public position—continue to hold those brands in the fire, so to speak. Because in contrast to other brands that didn’t say anything, you took a public position. Now, we’re simply going to hold you to what you said you were going to do.
R: You referenced this a moment ago. We’ve been saying these brands haven’t changed soon enough, but pretty much all of them have changed. They just haven’t gotten rid of the name. I think you mentioned that Aunt Jemima’s image has changed significantly over the years. I’ve read articles where you see the evolution and they added pearls to her. I guess tried to make it less offensive.
Do those steps have any value in your mind? Should we think of that as a good thing that they were at least trying to do that, or were they just delaying the inevitable? What are your thoughts on that kind of shift? I’m especially curious because this Washington NFL team has said that they will change their name. It seems that one of the leading candidates—at least a few believe what you see on social media—for the name is Warriors. To me, it still feels less of an explicit reference to Native Americans, but perhaps still trying to implicitly reference that old name.
I just wonder, is that actually almost worse when they try to just continue doing what they’re doing but make it less offensive versus just making a clean break with that offensive imagery or name?
J: I’m one who argues for the clean break. What I would say about Aunt Jemima and her transition—and I don’t have its initial year in front of me right now. I’m remembering here rather than pulling it out of my research. It feels like that took place right around the time I graduated from high school, which was 1988.
It took place somewhere, I would have to believe in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It didn’t take until the 21st century for that change to happen. Their evolution of her (if you will) worked in the marketplace for the better part in probably 2.5-3 decades or more. Your gradual change was enough for consumers up until 2020. Again, that might be as much as three decades or more.
The Washington Football Team is a little different. What I would argue is that because you’ve been so resistant, so recalcitrant to it, in contrast even to something like Aunt Jemima within the recent past. To my knowledge, nobody was out picketing the Quaker, PepsiCo headquarters. But you’ve been that. You had that. You’ve been the leading sports team of all of them. Heck, I’m at the University of Illinois. Our mascot for years was a person dressed in faux Native American attire. Chief Illiniwek was his name.
Our university got rid of him and others. St. John’s Redmen. You’ve got all of these other sports teams that have said, “Okay, we’re done with it. We’re stepping to the side,” and the like. You though are the example and have been the example, that the only one who never really even approached it from the standpoint of we’ll talk about it, analyze it, think about it, and quietly wait for it to go away. You are essentially—especially since Dan Snyder owned the team—never, not going to happen. Forget about it. My team, my way.
You don’t have the latitude of even being gradual because you have been so resistant for so very long. You haven’t been open to any conversation whatsoever. With that I would say, you want to step as far away from it as you can. You’d be the Washington Lighting—call yourself something. But get away totally from that association. You can keep all the colors. Of course, you can keep the red, gold, and white. You don’t have to change all that. But step away from the name, and just so you know, we’re going to make a clean break so that we can get out of the news for this in any way, shape, or form. It’s not bringing anything good to our brand.
R: We should mention that. You said money is what often drives us to change. At least as I understand it, what finally pushed them on this is FedEx—who sponsors their stadium—saying they were going to basically take their name off the stadium and no longer sponsor that unless the name changed.
J: Yeah. I love that letter from FedEx. It was such a wonderful example of the corporate iron hand in a velvet glove. “You guys can do whatever you want. You run your own business, but this is what we are going to do.” That essentially tells you that the writing is clearly on the wall and your time is up.
The other thing is if a company of the size, scope, and visibility of FedEx leaves, it’s not perhaps that you can’t get someone else to put their name on the stadium, maybe. But are they going to have that kind of attention and are they going to have that kind of money? No. Because no company of that size and that visibility is going to want to follow FedEx if you don’t change.
R: While it was the money that drove the NFL team, presumably, FedEx was motivated by this cultural awakening, I guess, for a lack of a better term. I don’t know that anyone’s calling on them to do this necessarily. I suppose probably in some quarters they were hearing that. Like you said, I don’t think people were boycotting FedEx or anything. I think they saw that. They probably—as many companies, probably—and hopefully did some kind of audit on do we have any kind of associations with something that we shouldn’t be associating ourselves with. They saw that connection.
J: The thing is, it’s a kind of exposure. If we can see it, we’re over here at FedEx. We’re a publicly-traded company. If we can see it, activists—and I’ll use that term as broadly as possible—they can see it too. And they understand the pressure points.
That’s why in the 1960s, for example, African Americans and civil rights organizations didn’t target advertising agencies first in their pressure for change. They targeted their clients first. They go to Procter and Gamble, Colgate, Palmolive, and Lever Brothers. They went to them and said, “Maybe you can’t tell another business—in this case, an agency—what to do internally. But you do have some control based on your money, and we have some influence over you, Procter and Gamble, based on our money and our ability to take action as consumers.”
If you’re a company like FedEx, you have to read that if we are exposed, sooner or later, somebody is going to call us on it as well. Somebody is going to go to the Redskin’s internal partners, and they’ve done it before, but you didn’t have social media to help drive it. Somebody’s going to go to their external partners—Nike, NFL, and stadium rights owners. They’re going to go to all of them and say, “Why are you doing this?”
R: We’ve alluded to this quite a bit throughout the conversation, but I want to directly. We saw the day or week of black squares on Instagram and companies coming out and making statements of solidarity or donating to nonprofits. We did see some companies—to a point you made earlier—starting to publish some data around the diversity of their employees. Some even make commitments around how they were going to change. Other brands were accused of coming out and saying the right things but not really doing anything or not having done anything to really back up those statements.
I’m just curious, do brands have a responsibility to speak up and support racial justice and related causes at flashpoints like the murder of George Floyd or just in general? Or not? I guess I would compare this to what we see happening in the NBA right now and of course, the refrain from some sides of the debate is the “shut up and dribble” refrain. That these people should just be athletes and stop talking about politics. I certainly don’t agree with that point of view. I wonder if people might say the same thing about companies.
Even business owners might say, “Hey, I don’t want to get into politics. I’m here to sell soap,” or whatever it is. I’m not going to take a stand on this one or the other. Is that a fair case for business owners to make? Should consumers accept that from brands? Or do brands have a responsibility here?
J: I’ll answer that this way. Do you remember when COVID—after the first several weeks—people were asking Dr. Fauci about how long is this going to last. If we’re going to paraphrase the conversation. Dr. Fauci essentially said, “The virus sets the time table. I can’t tell you. COVID is going to have to tell us. Coronavirus will tell us how long it’s going to be around and how long we’re going to be dealing with it,” so to speak.
My parallel to that is I don’t think necessarily that business by itself decides, but I think consumers can. What I mean by that is your consumer base will tell you their expectations and you can follow them or not. Because people increasingly want multiple reasons and multiple touchpoints with which to engage with a company.
Over the last several years, we’ve seen concepts and ideas around social justice, politics, or the right way. I don’t mean that in its political right-left sense, but the right way to address the topic is what your consumers are telling you. You can either respond and go with those consumers or be left behind and be left by them as they go to find a brand that better matches their outlook.
I think that’s driven by a number of things, not the least of which is that the world of consumer products is pretty much available to all of us pretty much all the time if I’m willing to wait. Because if it’s not on my store shelf, if it’s not immediately accessible to me in my community, I can order it and I can have it shipped to me. And I can support another brand. I can take the action, go through the effort, and take the time to support another brand that does better reflect my values. That’s what we’ve been seeing over the last several years is consumers increasingly wanting to support brands that support their values.
Back again to Fauci with coronavirus setting the time table, your consumer base (to some extent) will set your social outlook. Where you have to fall as a company, in this example, on issues of social justice, if you want to keep that consumer base around and not try to build another one, then you better be prepared to respond to them.
R: Right. It’s kind of like what you said the FedEx letter said. “It’s up to you, it’s your business.” I suppose every business owner has their right to act or respond however they see fit. If it sounds like what you’re saying is, given the trends, it’s not even just about your political beliefs or anything like that. It’s also just about smart business.
If you recognize that the trend is in the direction of consumers caring about the brands that they associate with or associate themselves with, then it would be wise to maybe not only react to how consumers are seeing your brand. But maybe to get out ahead of it and start to make any changes that you need to make to ensure that you won’t be in the position that some of these brands we’ve talked about today are where they’re seen as not only having racist origins but having taken far, far too long to react to change those.
J: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The support of consumers give the people that are in these companies—perhaps the latitude to do what they’ve already wanted to do—they just haven’t had the support. They just haven’t had the power. They just haven’t had the influence or the arguments to be made on their behalf.
For example, for all I know, people at FedEx wanted to do this a long time ago. Because a company is just made up of people. FedEx as a corporation doesn’t make a decision. A company doesn’t make a decision. Nobody shows up at FedEx tomorrow—unless there’s AI that’s operating the company, nothing happens. Packages don’t get delivered. Nothing happens if the people aren’t there.
People at FedEx. We sometimes forget this with companies and corporations. That they’re all just in it for the money. They’re all just right-leaning and right-wing—money, money, money, money, money, money. No. They’re made up of people who perhaps have wanted to do something, have wanted to say something, but for marketplace reasons, haven’t been able to. Now that those marketplace reasons have changed—that social justice, what have you—now, I can do what I’ve wanted to do. Now I can say what I’ve wanted to say because now I have the political, the social, and the civil license to say it. And now I can perhaps impact the change that I’ve wanted to impact for years. The same thing with Aunt Jemima.
R: Yeah. It’s an interesting take and an optimistic one. I know you can’t say for sure, but it’s nice to think that some of these organizations maybe wanted to change for a long time and actually saw this as an opportunity. I’d like it if more of them had pushed harder to do it sooner. But still, I’m happy that some of them are taking the chance, taking the opportunity to do it.
J: I’ll tell you, Rob. It comes from years of experience and interviews, many interviews in which I’ve had. People that had worked in agencies, client-side things. People said to me many times, “You know what, turn off your tape recorder and this is off the record, but I’ll tell you how we think. And I’ll tell you what I would want to do if I had the license.” That’s why I try not to fall into the academic constant land basting of corporations. It’s a corporation that makes money and by law, essentially, it has to be within the best interest of the shareholders. Therefore, it inherently has to be evil.
No, it’s people. People with families, people with jobs, people with needs, and people who need their salary just like the rest of us. I haven’t been able to say this, but now that the environment has changed, now I can say it. Now I can use my position to say it because it’s powerful as I am as the CEO of FedEx, I’m still beholden to properties and pretty powerful shareholders too. Now I’ve got the ability, the license to say and do something that maybe they agree with or maybe they don’t, but I can still get it done.
R: I hate that it had to take such violence to have a moment like this. But I hope that a lot of these brands and companies do take this opportunity to do the right thing. And that a year or two from now, we see far fewer of these brands on our supermarket shelves.
I have a couple of wrap up questions. Aside from your book Madison Avenue and the Color Line, are there any book recommendations? Bearing in mind here that a lot of the listeners are not as academically inclined but practitioners, people within agencies, or in the branding industry. Anything that you’ve read that you think is a good read for others?
J: Yeah. If you want to hear the story of this African American in particular, African American fight for agency within the advertising business, there’s a book by Judy Foster Davis. It’s called essentially MAD Black Women. It’s about the African American women’s story in and within the advertising industry. There is a book called Desegregating the Dollar, which is by a gentleman by the name of Robert Weems. His book looks at the focus over the years on African American consumers and how those arguments have evolved and changed.
Either one of those two books would be a great start. There is another one called Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus by a woman by the name of Marilyn Kern-Foxworth. She talks about African American symbolism primarily as trade characters.
J: Any one of those three would be a great place to start.
R: And then the last question. We’ve talked a lot about diversity in the advertising agency industry. We’ve talked about this brand changing and this whole social justice movement, hopefully within the world of consumer brands. I’m just curious (sort of related to that, is there a brand or an organization—whether it’s in the advertising world or the branding world—that you think is making a positive impact and that you would want people to learn about or support?
J: If I just had to name one, I really like what Coca-Cola does. Coca-Cola in particular. Nike goes without saying. But I think Coca-Cola does a wonderful job and has done a wonderful job here of late in particular in those images, ideas, and support for the types of things we’ve been talking about. That company is doing particularly well. That’s one I always use as an example.
R: Is there a specific aspect of the company, an ad, or something that you’re thinking of when you think of what they’re doing right?
J: Their ads for the last couple of years have done a great job—this is a total opinion—at showing the differences of life that we all enjoy different things. For example, when it comes to tailgating. We all have a different definition of what perfect food is, what goes on a burger, or what goes on a pizza. We have points of disagreement about a simple thing. It’s just a pizza. It’s not world-changing. You want arugula on yours, and I want pepperoni on mine. We disagree about a thing that’s largely meaningless in the world, but then we have a point of commonality, we have a point of agreement.
It’s the brand, but it’s back to that idea of, to me, it ties that idea of, okay, yes, we’re going to fight our commonality in this commercial about Coca-Cola. But in the world, our commonality is no matter what we do—unless you know something I don’t, for example—there’s only one planet for all of us to live on. That’s it.
R: Unless we’re Elon Musk.
J: Yeah. Elon Musk. We’re all going to be taken in the Musk shuttle to Mars. Until that happens where we all have chips buried in our brains, this is it, man. The Earth or the fact that we’re human beings is our point of commonality. My readings of the text of the Coca-Cola advertisements ties to that. Even within all of our differences, there are points of commonality for us. I think that’s a nice message in our too oft divided environment.
R: Absolutely. Just for the record, I don’t like arugula on my pizza. But I also want to say, for the record, it’s been an absolute pleasure, Dr. Chambers, having you on the show—getting to learn from your experience and your research. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing some of your insights.
J: You are quite welcome. I enjoyed it.
R: Thanks again.
J: Thank you, Rob. You have a great day.
R: You too.