Collective African American net income (spending power) now exceeds $1 trillion dollars annually. Because of this economic reality, a wide variety of contemporary companies continually create marketing campaigns to effectively reach this important segment of the U.S. consumer market. Yet, in the not-too-distant past, black consumers were all but ignored in the American marketplace. This article will provide an overview of this historical (and business) phenomenon.
One hundred years ago, African Americans were not perceived to be a viable consumer market. There were distinct social, economic, and political reasons for this situation. First, the vast majority of blacks, at the time, lived in the rural South isolated from America’s major cities/economic markets. Second, many of these individuals found themselves ensnared as peons and sharecroppers with little disposable income. Finally, the dictates of Jim Crow racial segregation relegated rural southern blacks to the margins of society, including being unable to vote.
Because of blacks’ marginality in the realms of economics and politics, early twentieth-century white Americans, including white businesses, believed they could, with impunity, denigrate African Americans. This helps to explain American advertising’s pervasive use of derogatory black images during this period. Many white companies regularly featured blacks with exaggerated physical characteristics in their advertisements. Others used the term “nigger” in naming products or derisively portrayed African American children as “pickaninnies.”
The World War I Great Migration of rural southern blacks to northern and southern cities, to take war-related jobs, followed by an even larger migration of southern blacks to northern, southern, and western cities during World War II, created a viable African American consumer market. By the end of World War II, blacks were strategically located in America’s major urban markets with money to spend. Consequently, white companies began to think in terms of a