For the 113th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Kimberley Mangun and Lisa Parcell explain how advertisers began speaking directly to Black audiences in the 1950s.
Kimberley Mangun is an associate professor emerita of communication. She taught media history and reporting at the University of Utah and researched the Black press and civil rights. Lisa Parcell is the Betty and Oliver Elliott professor of communication at Wichita State University. She teaches and researches media history and integrated marketing communication.
Lisa Parcell: Black consumers were a definite target audience that they had disposable income to spend on consumer goods, that they were very brand loyal, and that they really wanted marketing to be aimed directly at them.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
The end of World War II ushered in a boom in American consumption. After years of rationing, Americans were in the market for consumer goods of all kinds and advertisers were eager to help connect them with manufacturers.
Some of those advertisers stuck with what was working for them, using the same appeals and targeting the same audiences as before and during the war. But others started rethinking some of their audiences. One group specifically considered in a new light was Black Americans. As the two scholars joining me today explain, advertisers had previously tended to assume Black Americans would just follow their white counterparts in choosing products. And so those advertisers tailored their appeals to white shoppers.
But in the post-war era, some advertisers began recognizing Black Americans as a unique audience with its own wants and needs, and consequently, they needed to be targeted by advertisers using different culturally specific appeals. Joining me today are Kimberley Mangun, associate professor at the University of Utah, and Lisa Mullikin-Parcell, associate professor at Wichita State University. And they explain how they discovered this pattern playing out in the case of one particular product: evaporated milk, specifically that sold by the brand Pet Milk.
Lisa and Kim, welcome to the show. So, our conversation today centers on advertising, and although it’s an integral part of the press in the United States, we often don’t focus on it in media history research. So, what led you two to study it? You know, what, what brought you to this, to this project? Kim, do you want to start us off?
Kim Mangun: Sure. I had been actually working on a much bigger, broader project involving the Birmingham World. That’s a Black newspaper that was published in Birmingham, Alabama, and I had been studying the editor of that newspaper.
And the more that I looked at just individual weeks of the newspaper, I started to notice in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, these ads that were featuring Black families, and these were generally quarter-page ads that had maybe four or five photographs of the family in different settings. They might be in the kitchen. They might be outside in their yard. They might be playing games together, watching television together.
And I just got really curious because I knew enough about advertising history to know that it was really rare to have families featured in really positive settings with no white people focused in the ad. And I just wanted to know more about it. And I started saving them, thinking that maybe at some point when I finished my study of the Birmingham World that I would get back to it. And I happened to mention it to my colleague, Lisa Parcell, who was the advertising media scholar. And she just became really interested in it, too.
And so, we decided to partner on this particular study.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. So, Lisa, tell us a little bit about the product then. So, what is this product and how was it marketed generally? Like maybe, maybe apart from this particular campaign?
Lisa Parcell: Yeah, evaporated milk is basically what it sounds like. It is milk that is heated, so it’s condensed. So, it’s a more concentrated milk, and then it’s canned, and it has many advantages, the biggest one being that it’s a shelf-stable. It’s stable just in your pantry. It’s also cheaper, so it was a low-cost alternative to fresh milk. And when it came out in the 1880s, that was before refrigeration, so it was a boon to people who wanted to have fresh milk on hand for cooking.
It’s also used for feeding babies. So, it was everything from a daily use to feed your child to something that you would whip up and make into a dessert.
Ken Ward: Okay. And so do you have a sense of how it was marketed originally before or outside of this campaign? What was the target audience for this product then?
Lisa Parcell: Target audience was mostly middle-class to lower-class consumers who did their own home cooking. So, it wasn’t marketed to bakeries. It was marketed to the home cook or who wanted a shelf-stable product in the South. So, it was marketed on taste, on economy, and on ease. It’s an easy product to use.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. So, what led to this particular campaign then? Like what pushed Pet Milk to broaden its target audience to include this Black audience as well?
Lisa Parcell: Let me back up a little bit and say that researchers had known – so J. Walter Thompson, which was a big advertising agency in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and a number of other organizations had done market research, but most of their market research had focused on white consumers. They were really concerned about women shoppers who are middle-class white consumers.
And they just assumed that anybody who was any other ethnic minority would just follow along. So, when Kim brought these ads, it was fascinating to me because they had obviously gone against what the common thought was that you just market to white consumers and Black consumers will purchase it, and we knew that that wasn’t true. I had known from research that Black consumers were a definite target audience, that they had disposable income to spend on consumer goods, that they were very brand loyal, and that they really wanted marketing to be aimed directly at them. And so this campaign was fascinating in that it was actually listening to the research of the time and using it.
Ken Ward: Okay. And, and so give us a little bit more context on when this campaign took place and where, you know, it mentioned Birmingham. Where else would this ad have been seen? What types of publications?
Kim Mangun: Well, yeah, it was interesting because I discovered it in the Birmingham World, which was owned by the Atlanta Daily World. And so when I cross-referenced, sure enough, these ads also appeared in the Atlanta Daily World. And then I got even more curious and I started looking at some of the newspapers across the country that were published for Black Americans and, lo and behold, found the ads in the Los Angeles Daily Sentinel, the New York Amsterdam News, Baltimore Afro-American, and many other newspapers. So, it was interesting to see some of the same ads, of course, but also discreet ads published during the time period that we found these ads. And that was generally between about 19-, November 1949 until March 1958.
Ken Ward: So, what, what about that era, Kim? Um, you know, what, why might we have seen these ads during this era, as opposed to earlier? I assume we see ads later, right? But what is it that leads to us seeing ads like this and these publications at this point in time?
Kim Mangun: Right. As Lisa said, we had done some research and she knew a lot more than I did, but about the 1920s and so much of the advocacy that was done then to inspire white companies to advertise for Black Americans. And by 1949, of course, we’re in the post-World War II era. And so, a lot of things we hypothesized came together at that time where you’ve got a post-World War II boom in the economy, in consumerism, in job opportunities for African Americans, population increases generally across the board.
People who had been experiencing rationing during World War II were really interested in being able to buy products. And so we’re thinking that a lot of things just sort of fortuitously came together. And then finally there was a Black advertising executive who really was instrumental in working with the Gardner ad agency that represented Pet Milk company.
Ken Ward: Okay. Now, now, what, what did these ads actually look like? Kim, you said a little bit about that earlier, but what, what was the actual content of these ads? If we were looking at them on the page, Lisa, what would we see and how would that compare maybe with what we might see in other advertisements?
Lisa Parcell: The ads for Pet Milk that were part of the happy family campaign were very photo heavy. So, they would have up to four ads. It was often a family sitting together and being active, doing the things that they would normally do. So, watching television, fixing dinner, going to the store, things that showed them as a family unit being successful and happy.
Now, the difference is that the same ads or, sorry, ads for the same product in other magazines would have been more taste-oriented. So, we’re going to show pictures of a dessert that you can make with Pet Milk. We’re going to show a baby with a bottle. We’re going to show things that are recipes.
So, that’s what led Kim and me to really believe that these ads were directly taking the advice of consumer research at the time that said that you have to make the appeal different, ‘cause they were very different.
Ken Ward: Yeah. Yeah. And so, so Kim, what, what is it about that particular approach, right? That different set of appeals that is, you know, why is this specifically the approach to take with this, this target audience of Black Americans?
Kim Mangun: Right, and this is what was so fascinating about it, because the more that we looked into the things that Lisa was just talking about, you know, the themes became Black pride. They became racial uplift. They became equality. They became things like showing Black Americans on a par with white individuals. And so, it was just so interesting and so powerful to see things like Black home ownership featured in the advertisements. So, it was not just that they were playing games together, but they were in their own home that they owned.
They were watching TV, which represented rising economic status. And for Black Americans, the other part of that was that there was hope that television would be a more equal medium, right? Instead of the very segregated radio shows, for example, that Black actors would have a chance on television.
Attire was a very important part of the photographs where men and women, men were wearing suits, women were wearing dresses. The kids often were in church attire. So, there were just lots of these themes that came through in the ad copy and particularly in the photographs that were featured in the ads.
Ken Ward: And so, Kim, these are a consequence of that market research that had been done earlier. This is, I just want to make sure I’m clear on this. This is a part of kind of that, that post-World War II economic boom social trends as well. Like where, why those particular themes?
Kim Mangun: Yeah. And we were thinking that again it was because of post-World War II. And so, you start getting into the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, the assertion of Black rights after World War II. Brown v. Board of Education, of course, culminating in 1954, 1955. Changes at the federal level with legislation. And, in theory, implementing more jobs for African Americans. More women, more Black women entering the workforce, trying to get away from domestic work.
So, there were a lot of these things coming together and, yes, you know, the creative force behind this was a man named W. Leonard Evans Jr. And he took a lot of research that he had done, but also using a lot of the research that had been done through the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote an article also for Printers Inc. that talked about the importance of targeting Black consumers and reaching them where they were, which meant in stores that they could shop at, and the publications that they read.
So, it wasn’t the same as running an ad for Pet Milk in a white newspaper. It had to be in a Black newspaper because it demonstrated that these consumers were a unique audience that the advertiser wanted.
Ken Ward: Gotcha. So, Lisa, was this a widespread shift in advertising in this era? Is Pet Milk kind of unique? Uh, it seems to be, it seems to be either first or it stood out in some way. That’s probably what got y’all’s attention, but is this, is this part of a broader trend, a shift in advertising during this era? Or is it, does it stand on its own?
Lisa Parcell: I’d say it’s the beginning. So, there were many national products that had started to advertise in Black newspapers and magazines, but they really were just running the same campaign that they ran in other magazines. So, this is the first one that we could find where they clearly had listened to the research and specifically designed the campaign to appeal to that target audience.
And then as time went on, more and more product manufacturers realize that this was an untapped market that was, that was very lucrative. I mean, the amount of money that was disposable income for Black consumers rose dramatically between the 1940s and 1950s and then just kept going up.
Ken Ward: Sure. Now was, I’m just thinking about this in my head, was there, was there kind of a stepping stone? Did we see the same maybe appeals used if you have these advertisements that are targeted at a white audience you’re now moving and broadening that target audience or shifting it to include Black Americans?
Did, were the appeals immediately that they just went with these, these different appeals that were specific to that target audience, that community, or did they, were there steps in between that you know of where they maybe tried just having those same appeals, but with Black Americans depicted in the images instead of white Americans? Was it a gradual transition or was it, did they, did they sort of figure it out all at once as, as, as a result of this market research?
Lisa Parcell: Um, Kim, if you have anything to add to that? [Laughs]
Ken Ward: It’s a fuzzy question, I know.
Lisa Parcell: It is, but I think that the campaign itself, the happy family campaign really came out of the blue. So, Gardner had worked with Pet Milk to create a home economics department, which was kind of the precursor to a lot of the, “We’re going to create a recipe. We’re going to tell consumers how to use the product. We’re going to try to make the product easy to use.” And so, that had really been the advertising that Pet Milk had done in the 1940s, and that was typical.
It was typical of most pantry products, but this campaign really did stand out as being a dramatic shift away from that, because there are very few mentions of even how they use Pet Milk in these ads. It’s really more about the families.
Kim Mangun: True. Yeah. If it, if it is mentioned, it was oftentimes just related to the children.
So like so-and-so, 2-year-old so-and-so was a Pet Milk baby, for example. So, the baby had the milk as formula, or it was for cooking, but yeah, the main themes were just the families doing things, whether going to school, higher education, working as educators, church life, social activism. Really fascinating again, getting in that idea of Black pride and racial uplift.
Ken Ward: Sure, sure. So, did you two get a sense through this research as to how this campaign was received at the time? I’m not sure who to direct that question at, but was, was it well received? Was it successful in some way? Were they able to measure that?
Kim Mangun: Well, you know, I think success is difficult to, to assess. But our, our thought was that because it ran for at least nine years, almost ten years, that we felt that it was successful. Otherwise the company would have pulled the plug much sooner.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Lisa Parcell: And because we are now talking about it and recognize that that’s the kind of advertising that is more common, it became more common. If you say that, you know, imitation is the greatest compliment, it worked.
Ken Ward: Sure.
Kim Mangun: Right. And I think the fact that it was nationwide as well, you know, it wasn’t just in maybe specific markets like Baltimore or New York or Los Angeles, you know? It was in apparently a number of Black newspapers across the country. So, I think that that also illustrates that they were really trying to reach a lot of folks across the country with this campaign.
Ken Ward: Sure. Kim, you and Lisa specifically set this campaign in opposition, in your research, in opposition to stereotypical images like Aunt Jemima, right? When you speak to that distinction, can you explain how these depictions just were, were so different from other stereotyped depictions that we may have seen in the media at the time?
Kim Mangun: Well, I can speak to part of it, and Lisa may want to jump in for the rest of it. It really jumped out to me regarding women. So, typically women were not in charge of their own kitchen. For example, you know, they worked in someone else’s kitchen, took care of someone else’s children, right? White kitchens, white families, white children. Um, and they were often stereotyped as you noted in sort of an Aunt Jemima sort of image.
And this campaign I felt was important because it showed women in charge of their own houses, in charge of their own kitchens, in charge of their menus, passing along food traditions, even if it was simply cooking with Pet Milk, but it was still passing on traditions and incorporating both their female and male children. So, boys and girls, sons and daughters. You know, it was interesting to see the family working together as opposed to being separated by race and working in someone else’s kitchen.
Ken Ward: Sure. Sure. So, can, can you connect what we see in this campaign to the broader Civil Rights Movement? Right? This is such an interesting time because it’s coming out of this post-World War II period, moving into an, to an era that those of us who know a little bit about the Civil Rights Movement can, can recognize the features of. So, how does this fit in with that broader movement and, and patterns related to race in the United States that transcend some of what we’ve talked about so far?
Kim Mangun: I think maybe two or three themes generally. So, education was really mentioned in these ads. So again, if you think about the campaign itself between 1949 and 1958, you had Brown v. Board of Education decided in 1954 and then, of course, the following year with the implementation of it. So, educational opportunities falls smack dab in the middle of this campaign. And many of the ads featured details about the couple or their family.
So, they either had been educated and were working, for example, in a junior high school or something, or they were pursuing a career but then also going, for example, to night school. So, there were a couple of individuals mentioned as going to night school to become lawyers. So, we see educational opportunities as part of the civil rights campaign. Home ownership, of course, also, right? A very contested space where people were unable to buy homes or unable to buy homes in specific neighborhoods.
And it really was the, a lot of emphasis placed on people having homes and also being able to entertain at their home. So, having people over for a backyard barbecue, for example, letting your children play in the backyard on a swing set or something. And of course, you know, sort of the parallel conversation to that is the fact that maybe you couldn’t go to the local park, right? Or maybe you couldn’t go out to dinner or something with your friends, but instead you did have this really nice space to be able to entertain.
And there was a lot of conversation as well in the ad copy about people feeling really proud of the curb appeal. You know, they would tend their flower garden in front for the curb appeal, or they would be able to grow a lot of their family’s vegetables in the backyard garden plot. So, those are two examples, I think, particularly of the way that the Civil Rights Movement was reflected in these ads.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Uh, can, can you speak a little bit to the legacy of this ad campaign? Lisa, you were talking a little bit about this earlier, you know, did this Pet Milk campaign have a lasting impact on advertising in the U.S.?
Lisa Parcell: I wouldn’t want to claim that it was the one and only campaign that started changing, convincing product manufacturers to advertise to the Black consumer. But I would say it’s definitely in at the beginning. So, in terms of long-term impact, yes.
The other thing that had a strong impact is that these were real people. So, most of the other images that you had seen early on that even you mentioned, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, weren’t real people. So, this was the first time that we found the happy family portrayed as real Americans.
Ken Ward: Sure, sure. Well, we have a, we’re running out of time. We have one question. I want to make sure that we get to, to hear both of your answers for it, right? Every, every time we have an episode, we like to ask guests, why does journalism history matter? And so, Lisa, I’ll start with you. Why does journalism history matter?
Lisa Parcell: My research is mostly about product promotion. And if you think about a can of milk, a can of milk is pretty much irrelevant to most people and is about, about two bucks. Many people have never even purchased a can of milk. So, a two-buck can of milk is not much to get excited about, but let’s say just in theory that you buy one can of milk every month for the entire time that you are cooking.
So, one month, 12 times a year for let’s say 60 years. And then let’s say that you multiply that by there about 150,000 households in Wichita, in Wichita, Kansas. So, one can of milk for every household every, every month. That brings you up to $216 million. At that point, you realize that whatever advertising was done back in the 1940s, 1950s is still having an impact today, and that’s powerful.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s an interesting way to put it. Uh, Kim, what about you? Why does journalism history matter to you?
Kim Mangun: So, I take a little bit different approach. So, I think that, you know, journalism history is often said to be the first draft of history. We hear that over and over, but as such accounts illustrate the tragedies, the celebrations, conflicts, gaps, and silences, racism, sexism, really all the things that constitute public culture and add to popular memory.
And so, I believe that journalism and communication history matter, and they’re important to study for what they reveal about society.
Ken Ward: Excellent. Well, I just want to, that’s all the time we have, but I want to thank both of you for being on the show. I really appreciate it, and this is a really interesting conversation. That’s it, everyone, for this episode. Thanks for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @Jhistoryjournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R Murrow. Goodnight and good luck.