Michael O’Malley’s article Specie and Species: Race and the Money Question in Nineteenth-Century America points out the connection between the languages of money and race. He shows that the similarities in the two reflect how people seek to define themselves as intrinsically more valuable based on their ability to control entry to the market.
A recent Mad Men episode titled “The_Fog” dealt with similar themes about the issue of race in the economy. In a 1963 board meeting the character Pete suggests that the execs from Admiral Television consider creating an integrated commercial because market data has shown an increase in sales amongst African American consumers. One executive naively replies "Who's to say that Negroes aren't buying Admiral Televisions because they think white people want them?" Pete is stunned. Not because his character has been created as an advocate of equal rights, but because he loves money more than he hates black people. He can’t imagine why a business man would let bigotry stand in the way of the bottom line.
But race matters in corporate advertising. That was true in Mad Men’s 1960’s and in the much more recent past. Growing up in the 1990’s it was a standard set up to have one black friend in all television commercials. It was no longer politically correct to leave out African Americans, but corporations were still overtly saying that their ideal consumers were white people. In this way African American consumers weren’t left out, but they also weren’t featured. The commercials said “this product doesn’t neglect you, but it also isn’t for you.”
I could remember several commercials like this off the top of my head: including a Sunny_D commercial and the Burger King Kids_Club ads. When I looked up other commercials on YouTube I found an entire commercial break snagged from a 1989 Super Mario Brothers Super Show episode that reinforced my memory of the “one black friend” phenomenon. Three of the five commercials feature kids. Two of these three commercials show only one African American child and a large group of white children. The only commercial to feature more than one black person is the PSA warning kids against becoming drug dealers. This commercial has an almost exclusively all black ensemble, with the exception of one white police officer.
Are things different today? Companies are starting to change their approach when it comes to race in advertising. There are two Target commercials on air presently which feature non-white families; one which shows an African American family and one which shows an Asian American family. But what does this say about the modern corporation? Are we beyond thinking about race so that the commercial with the African American and Asian American families appeal to all? I like to think so, but there is still the matter of interracial couples being left out of the advertising equation. Perhaps this is a good question for O’Malley when he visits class on Thursday – how does race shape the present day economy?