The 1980s: A Fundamental Turn to More Positive Images

By the 1980s, when the Cosby Show appeared, Bill Cosby, through his positive influence and media power, had major sponsors, including Kraft Foods, the manufacturer of Jell-O pudding. Cosby became the spokesperson for Jell-O and appeared in a series of commercials with an ethnically diverse group of children. Equally important, these images started fundamental turn for more positive images of African Americans in advertisements. The Census Bureau reports that, around 60 percent of black households in 1990 had incomes of less than $25,000, compared to 40 percent of white households. However, only about one third of blacks are poor; two thirds are above the Census Bureau’s poverty threshold index for 1991. Studies also show that the middle- and upper-income segments of the black community have grown enormously in the past ten years. More than 13 percent of households headed by blacks have incomes of $50,000 or more. And, in this highly segmented market, even people with lower incomes buy and use goods and services (Rossman 1994: 123).

The demand for recognition and inclusive advertising by African American consumers became quite compelling. As Rossman writes in Multicultural Marketing: Selling to a Diverse America, “African Americans are a large, enterprising and growing market, representing about 32 million people, with close to $300 billion in spending power” (124). Although blacks are generating more income, they strive to maintain their “African American identity” and not become like white consumers; they are not consistently brand loyal, for they are what Rossman calls “a highly subsegmented and stratified market” (126). In this marketing milieu,

Some members of the black lower class are more responsive to marketing campaigns that stress images of black unity and Afrocentric identity over all other issues. On the other hand, middle-class and upscale African Americans’ increased pride in black culture is not usually a major factor in their purchasing decisions (136).

The reason black lower class respond to marketing advertisements that depict images of black unity and Afrocentric identity over all other issues is that some lower-class blacks are motivated to buy items that express black identity to gain esteem and enrichment in their own culture. They indicate they are more willing to show their racial loyalty; their actions are akin to behavior such as selecting African-sounding names for themselves and their children. The fact that middle- class and upscale blacks often do not base buying on their need to express black identity is not surprising, given that their education and employment would influence them to emulate others in their socioeconomic class and refrain from expressions of black identity that could adversely affect their economic or social standing.

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