Every evening, America gathers in front of the television set and watches scenes from a different country - a vibrant land of blacks and whites, together in living color.
Is that us?
Is this the same nation that bled and burned a decade ago on the matter of racial equality? When conflict between the races was a staple item on the nightly news?
Tonight in everyone's living room, Bill Cosby will huddle with a circle of engaging children to discuss the virtues of Jell-O Pudding. Jell-O sales are up more than 30 percent since Cosby began his pudding seminars on TV.
This evening, O. J. Simpson will sprint through the lobby of our airport on his way to the Hertz counter. Go, Juice, go: This commercial is so familiar the competition at Avis is parodying the O.J. sprint with a balding white man.
At sundown, a crew of tired oil riggers, whites and blacks working together, will fly home from their off-shore drilling platform to hard work's reward - a bottle of Miller High Life beer.
Meanwhile, a typical suburban family, which happens to be black, will stage a surprise lawn party to celebrate Grandmoter's 60th birthday. Grandma blows out the candles and everyone enjoys a Pepsi.
Tonight on television black people will get headaches. They will reach for the 12-hour cough medicine. They will pamper their babies, worry about spotless floors and gleaming dishes, take showers with that amazing soap which wakes you up in the morning. They will sell life insurance. They will buy homes on tree-shaded streets. They will put their money in the friendly neighborhood full-service bank.
Yes, these familiar images are part of America now. We watch them so frequently, the racial content is no longer worth mentioning. That, of course, is the collective message of the commercials and TV broadcasting in general: race has receded as a divisive element in American life, replaced on television by these warm amiable images of racial togetherness.
Everyone knows TV is unreal, but television also has a commerical authenticity that no other medium can claim. The only place where all America meets is in front of the TV set. The shared experiences of TV watching are more surely attuned to the broad mass audience, white and black, than politics or literature or even local newspapers.
As a crude social barometer, the racial images on TV in 1978 reflect real changes in the society. America is a more tolerant nation today: White and black citizens are much more likely to experience interracial contacts somewhere in their lives - besides TV - at school or work, at football games or restaurants. The commercials, in particular, reflect the fact that millions of blacks have made real gains in jobs and family incomes.
Perhaps most important, black people now have established a presence before TV's mass audience, a presence they were denied not so many years ago because of white fear and hostility. The frequency of blacks in prime-time TV commercials more than tripled from 1967 to 1974, according to one survey.
Critics make the point tht black Americans are still under-represented in this artificial population of TV commercials as well as in programming because they are more likely to appear in ads surrounded by many white faces, rather than alone or holding the product. Still, the racial integration of TV advertising has progressed far ahead of the print advertising in newspapers or magazines.
These changes were stimulated, of course, by heavy pressure in the late 60s from civil rights organizations, but something different is motivating the trend now, according to advertising and marketing executives.
Less and less these days, black faces show up in TV commercials as gestures of corporate goodwill or white guilt. More and more, blacks are included because the black audience has what every advertiser wants - dollars.
This distinction may be more meaningful to blacks than it is for well-intentioned whites. In the crass transactions of the American marketplace, there is a crude spirit of equality that transcends pious sentiment. Gregory A. Campbell a marketing executive with Pepsi Cola, explained:
"Being black, I much prefer being catered to on the basis that I have dollars to spend on a product as opposed to being catered to because it will make somebody else feel good.
For the long run, I think the economic basis is much more reliable than the social basis."
If you watch TV closely, you may notice undramatic but steady increase in the number of all-black ads, moving slowly to new products. At the same time, you will see black faces moving slowly into middle-income products - from beer and laudry soap to life insurance and banks and airline travel. While millions of blacks families remain in poverty, those ads tell us with commercial certainly that many scale" as consumers,
Behind these images, there are two important lessons about race that the advertising industry stumbled on sometime in the early 1970s. These are still not universally shared by nervous sponsors and ad wizards, but have been tested successfully in the marketplace:
First, though a hard-core minority of whites still harbor racist attitudes, these people do not react in any tangible way to the increase presence of blacks on TV. "Sales go up and down for different brands for a variety of reasons," said a Chicago advertising executive. "All we know is that at least it [integrated advertising] doesn't hurt."
Second, the aspirations of black consumers changed in the last decade - or at least the industry changed its understanding of black responses to advertising. For years, it was presumed by ad agencies, supported by research, that black consumers, as they became more affluent, would identify more and more with white images, emulating white life-styles and reaching more positively to white faces in ads. Thus, sponsors had two self-serving reasons to resist racial integration of their advertising - the fear of offending whites and the fear of not selling effectively to the affluent black audience. Racial Identity
But black consciousness changed during the last decade. In the early 70s. ad research began to show that black audiences react most positively to all-black ads - a new sense of racial identity undoubtedly created by the upheavals of the 60s.
In one test of consumer responses, black viewers descibed the all-black commercials as more entertaining, more imaginative beautiful, memorable," while the white version of the identical commercial seemed to them "flat" and the same throughout." The message for sponsors is clear: if you want to reach the black consumers and their billions of dollars, you better put some of their folks in your ads or even add some all-black casts to your mix of commercials.
Most corporations, judging from their advertising still do not understand this change or believe it or consider it relevant to their marketing. A new York casting director said many major clients are still nervous about including black actors.
"They're still fighting it tremendously," she said. "Unless there's a marketing incentive, they won't do anything. It's backwards. They find out from marketing who's buying and then go after them. But they won't go after minorities first."
Even some of the companies that use blacks in their commercials are still overly tender about it, the director said. "It's almost like a quota thing," she complined. "If there are more than five people, that means one black. They're also very careful to get black people who look white. A lot of them are very afraid of going 'too black.'"
Pepsi's "birthday party" is one all-black commercial tht manages to be both universal - a warm-hearted family ritual that everyone can reognize - and also distinctly black. "The gandmother is such a black grandmother," a black TV executive exclaimed.
Yet that particular commercial was originally designed on the story boards for an all-white cast. "We said, hey, this could be a black commercial," senior vice president Alan Pottasch recalled, "Why not shoot it with black people?"
So they did. The interchangeability of white and black families, enjoying the same good things in American life, is its own comment on how much the mass audience has changed its perceptions in recent years.
Indeed, some of this same research found a curious change in white attitudes - white viewers seem to prefer racially integrated commercials as much or more than all-white ads (and they rate all-black ads only slightly lower).
What's going on? Everyone knows that racial separation is still a dominant fact of American life, especially in housing and private social activities. How could the white audience respond positively to integrated scenes on TV and react so hesitantly to the same thing in their real lives?
For one thing, the integrated commercials are unfailingly pleasant messages - people enjoying themselves, regardless of color. The Little League team, mostly white kids, piles into McDonald's for hamburgers with their black coach. The Pepsi "bike marathon" wheels through Central Park, white and black parents and kids enjoying the park together. Afterwards, they pause for the same refreshment, Pepsi.
"Believable" is the favorite word of the advertising executives who create these images, the word they invoke to explain the integrated world of their commercials.
They do not claim that most Americans live in integrated neighvorhoods or that most white and black workers go out drinking together together after work or that most black families live in handsome houses in the suburbs.
But they do insist that these images have become common enough in ordinary American life that they are now "believable" to the mass audience, black and white, North and South.
"If people see it around them, it's believable," said Larry Williams, marketing vice president for Miller High Life.
Twelve years ago, by contrast, a New York advertising executive explained to Wahsington Post reporter John Carmody why certain "integrated" commercials might offend the black audience in Washington, D.C.:
"A beer has learned not to run an 'integrated' TV commercial here because it now knows that the vast middle-class Negro audience in Washington will see right through the idea of a beer-drinking Negro in a country club golfing foursome." Decade of Change
In 1966, that scene was not "believable." Today, it would be routine.
Seymour Banks, a senior executive of the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago, suggests that white viewers may identify with idyllic racial harmony in the dream-desire world of TV regardless of racial distance in their daily lives.
"I suppose," Banks said, "if you ask, is there a one-to-one correspondence between the casts that are shown and the situations in ordinary life, the answer is no. On the other hand, if you ask, is that what we'd like to see? Does this mirror what we would like to be, it may very well be that this is our aspiration. It may be a false picture of reality, but a true picture of our hopes."
If Banks is right about this, it might greatly alter political assumptions about racial issues. Are white Americans committed, in spirit, to an interracial future which they still resist in practice? Or do TV's images of racial integration allow whites to believe that racial discrimination has been eliminated, that blacks now live as they do and inequality is a problem of the past?
The spectacular success of Miller's beer is one of the great sagas of American selling and, as every TV viewer knows, black people played a prominent role in the Miller marketing strategy. This is not a matter of social philosophy. Black people drink a lot of beer.
When the Miller Brewing Co. was purchased in 1972 by Phillip Morris. the same folks who brought us the Marlboro man, Miller's was languishing in seventh place, going nowhere. Texture Authentic
Today, Miller's is in second place, zooming past Schlitz and challenging Budweiser for first. Miller's now sells 24 million barrels of beer a year, compared with 5 million barrels only five marketing campaigns.
Back in 1972, the problem was Miller High Life's name and reputation: "the champagne of bottle beers." That was fine of you wanted to sell beer to rich people. But the serious beer drinkers in America are working folks, white and black.
"Our job," marketing wizard Lary Williams likes to say, "was to move Miller's from the champagne bucket to the lunch bucket without spilling a drop."
How does a product speak to the blue-collar audience, white and black, in one commercial, bridging the racial enmities that are supposedly so strong? Miller's found two successful techniques - humor and realism.
The Miller's Lite ads, which have grabbed something like 60 percent of the low-calorie beer market, feature famous sports figures and a droll touch, often with a faint racial twist that amuses whites and blacks.
Wilt Chamberlain does a double take when he looks up at the white bartender who seems about eight feet tall. Bubba Smith, an awesome black man at the bar, gets plenty of respect from white patrons as he rips the top off his Lite can and says: "I also like the easy-opening can." Everyone in the saloon applauds when heavyweight Joe Frazier sings.
The "Miller Time" campaign features those warm scenese of white and black workmen returning to their reward, a friendly beer together after work. Oil riggers, longshoremen, power linemen. It's Miller time.
One reason these amiable blue-colar characters look so real is that most of them are - not actors on a set, but genuine workers filmed in real bars. Miller's research found thatr many Louisiana blacks work in offshore drilling alongside whites. The black foreman in that commercial is real. The power linemen who climb down from their tower are all linemen. The longshoremen's bar is a real New York waterfront bar.
"We try to find real situations that are believable," said Tom Shropshire, market-planning vice president and one of America's top black executives in marketing. "We don't set up phony situations that are not believable to whites or blacks."
The Miller executives admit that, sometimes, they sprinkle a few actors in some scenes and manipulate the casting occasionally - bringing together workers who were not, in fact, drinking buddies before the filming. Push for First
But the texture of those scenes is authentic, Shropshire and Williams insist, "believable" to working people. They, of course, have those extra-ordinary sales figures to support their claim.
Incidentally, it might be socially significant that the Miller marketing strategists have not used integrated social scenes in the campaign to push Lowenbrau, their new class beer aimed at the "upscale" market.
Black friends are not included in the Lowenbrau beach picnic or the camping weekend, scenes potraying affluent whites of obvious refinement. The contrast poses an interesting question: is black-white social contact now "believable" at the blue-collar level, but not among the uppercrust?
Shropshire remebers when an agency brought in a proposal for a cigarette ad that showed blacks playing polo. "That one never got out of the meeting room," he said.
At Pepsi, black executives in marketing nixed an ad that portrayed blacks on the ski slopes. Blacks do go skiing, of course, but not yet in large enough numbers to represent a familiar image to most Americans.
"We're very careful not to force-fit it" said Pepsi's Pottasch. "Absurd situations could result." Changing America
The amiable personality of Bill Cosby provides another measure of how much America has changed. Over the last generation, the Ford Motor Co. has used a number of famous faces for its TV identity, from Ed Sullivan and Tennessee Ernie Ford to Hugh Downs and Leslie Neilson. Now Cosby sells Ford's corporate image. Ford wants to be your car company.
Whom do you trust? Whom do you admire? In the Top Rank
When Cosby's name and reputation were test-marketed by Ford with 30 other famous personalities, the sample groups of consumers ranked him above everyone except, according to a Detroit account executive, God and Walter Cronkite.
"He has a very high recall," said Jervis McMechan, vice president for Ford's coporate advertising. "He is known, known with Ford. Persuasion value, that's important too. We're not really spending the moeny to get people to remember Bill Cosby."
General Foods regularly tests its Jell-O ads among "focus groups" of consumers, asking mothers, 24 to 56 years old, what they think of Cosby and his soft pitch for pudding.
"What they tell us," said Lynn Wells of Young & Rublicam, is how much they like Cosby. They think he's a good guy, wholesome, good with kids. They see him as a sort of surrogate parent for their kids, though they don't put it in those words."
Cosby race never comes up in these tests, according to Wells.
Cosby's race came up all the time in 1964, when he broke into network TV as co-star of "I Spy." He got very weary of the questions.
"The general question from just about every TV writer walking and talking," Cosby recalls, "was: do you really think this series is going to last with a Negro in aleading role? What they were saying, you can't get around it, was: this is such a racist audience, you can't survive."
Instead Cosby became a star and TV programming began to change. Nonwhite characters appeared in more than half of prime-time shows broadcast in 1973 and 1974. Today, four sit-com's are based on black story lines and blacks are beginning to penetrate the afternoon "soap operas" which black viewers tend to watch more heavily than whites. Progress Seen
"Progress has been made," Cosby said. "Anybody who denies that is crazy. They may not like the pace of it, they may not like the inequality of it, but there has been progress."
It is easy to forget how recently these things changed. In 1968, CBS withdrew from syndication its old "black" serise, "Amos 'N Andy." In 1968, a Chrysler advertising executive objected toa scene in an NBC musical special in which Petual Clark, white Belafonte, series black man.
Today, says NBC Vice President Bud Rukeyser, "it would be difficult to imagine a black-white theme you couldn't do on television."
The "Jeffersons" includes a white-black couple whom George Jefferson sarcastically calls, "The Zebra."
All of the shows, white and black, must appeal to the total audience, white and black, in order to survive in the ratings. Black viewers watch TV more heavily than whites and tend to be less critical of TV than whites. They also favor the "black" shows, but the white audience likes them too. Age, not Race
Bill Rubens of NBC said advertisers rarely, if ever, ask for a racial breaddown on who is watching a network show. "We're more concerned about age than race," Rubens said. "We'll take them any color, as long as they're young."
Cosby believes that TV helps erode racial fears, by making the unknown familiar. He thinks television can lead further with color-blind casting, so that black actors can assume roles which have no special "black story" to them.
No one knows exactly what the American audience learns from these racial images. TV viewers have a way of screening out what they don't believe or translating what they see on TV to fit their own beliefs.
But this much is certain: racial differences are no longer up front in everyone's mind, the way they once were.
CBS commissioned extensive research on "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," the animated show which portrays Bill Cosby's childhood in the Philadelphia ghetto. Eight million children watch it every Saturday morning. When CBS asked kids, 8 to 11 years old, what they noticed about "Fat Albert" and his friends, what was different or similar about them, the result was striking.
Seven out of 10 children did not consider it work mentioning that Eat Albert and his gang are black.