Burrell Takes Stock of Ad Marketplace

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Thomas Burrell, chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications Group, was inducted March 15 into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame. Mr. Burrell, a pioneer in multicultural marketing, labels his creative style the “Huckleberry Finn” approach because, like the classic novel, the ads work on different levels.

Mr. Burrell, who at age 66 works a reduced schedule at his office in Chicago, reflected on the changing advertising market for TelevisionWeek contributor Jennie L. Phipps.

TelevisionWeek: How is [the market] different than it was when you founded Burrell in 1971?

Thomas Burrell: When we first started, African Americans weren’t seen on TV in any kind of positive way. So in those days, all you had to do was show African Americans in a realistic way, living their lives, and they responded overwhelmingly to those cues.

Over time, that has changed and we often see African Americans on TV-that’s the positive side. But the other side is that it’s amazing to me how little has changed in terms of lack of sensitivity to racial and cultural realities within the African American community. There were offensive and insensitive things done early on, and the[y] still are [being done]. I think the difference is that, ironically, African Americans themselves were much more sensitive to these miscues back in the days when we weren’t often seen.

A lot of stuff on the air today that would have prompted protest 30 years ago now goes by without comment-maybe because it is followed by so much material that isn’t offensive. And because it takes more to offend people.

TVWeek: What in particular do you find offensive?

Mr. Burrell: That spot for a candy bar-the woman has a huge derriere. She asks her husband if the pants make her butt look big and he shoves a candy bar in his mouth so that he can’t answer her. That’s an outrageous ad. Or the Rubberband Man spots for OfficeMax. You would never cast white people in those roles. It just wouldn’t be acceptable; white people wouldn’t stand for it. These ads support stereotypes about sensitive issues.

There’s a catastrophe and people aren’t even paying attention. I think we’re like frogs in the pot. The temperature rises gradually, and before they figure out what’s going on, they’re cooked. I think that’s what’s happening to black people in our society. We’re being cooked and we don’t even know it.

TVWeek: So whose job is it to step in and demand sensitivity?

Mr. Burrell: I think it is everybody’s job to do that. I think that buyers should certainly be looking at those things on behalf of their clients and that planners should talking about these things. I think that they are representing their clients. Every client has a corporate culture and every brand has a brand identity and image. And I think that it is the buyers’ and planners’ job to make sure that the content of the material is in line with those values. And then it is up to the public to determine whether or not to embrace those values.