Black History Year

Decoding the Racism in Advertising and Entertainment with Professor Gene Shelton

Episode Summary

Advertising, marketing, the entertainment industry and even the news media are selling us something. And what they’re selling usually isn’t good for us. Racist imagery like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are only the tip of the iceberg. Professor Gene Shelton reveals the racism behind advertising, and gets real about reclaiming our representation in media. This is a stirring conversation on how we all advance Black liberation when we up our media literacy game! BHY is produced by PushBlack, the nation’s largest non-profit Black media company - hit us up at and share this with your people!

Episode Notes

Advertising, marketing, the entertainment industry and even the news media are selling us something. And what they’re selling usually isn’t good for us. Racist imagery like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are only the tip of the iceberg. Professor Gene Shelton reveals the racism behind advertising, and gets real about reclaiming our representation in media. This is a stirring conversation on how we all advance Black liberation when we up our media literacy game! BHY is produced by PushBlack, the nation’s largest non-profit Black media company - hit us up at and share this with your people!

PushBlack exists because we saw we had to take this into our own hands. You make PushBlack happen with your contributions at Black History Year dot com. Most people do 5 or 10 bucks a month, but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. 

The Black History Year production team includes Tareq Alani, Patrick Sanders, William Anderson, Jareyah Bradley, Brooke Brown, Shonda Buchanan, Eskedar Getahun, Leslie Taylor-Grover, Abeni Jones, Akua Tay, Darren Wallace and our producer, Cydney Smith.

For Limina House, our producers are Jessica Rugh Frantz and Sasha Kai Parker, who also edits the podcast. Black History Year’s Executive Producers are Julian Walker for PushBlack and Mikel Ellcessor for Limina House. 

Episode Transcription

Decoding the Racism in Advertising and Entertainment with Professor Gene Shelton

HOST: She was the Black woman pursuing a dignified life for herself. Little did she know the racist advertising industry would appropriate her very likeness to sanitize slavery and sell syrup and pancakes. And they did it without a second thought.

I'm Jay from PushBlack and you're listening to Black History Year. We'll hear more about the story of Nancy Green in just a minute. And in today's episode, we'll also be speaking with Eugene Shelton, a professor at Kent State School of Media and Journalism. Shelton was an extremely influential publicist with Motown and CBS Records. If I listed all the superstars he worked with, we'd never get started. The thing about Gene is that he had a front row seat to the image making machine. From marketing to PR and advertising, he's the perfect person to break down what we're being sold, even when it's hurting us.


HISTORICAL OPEN: Nancy Green was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1834. She was broke when she showed up for the modeling audition that would change her life. R.T. Davis was not broke, however. The entrepreneur had just bought a packaged goods company. Sales were lagging though, and he needed to refresh the image to boost sales. When Nancy Green showed up for the audition, she didn't know her face would launch a million syrup bottles and found a billion dollar breakfast food empire all while propelling a racist trope. See, the theme of Aunt Jemima was literally inspired by a Blackface minstrel show. You can't get much more obvious than that. But R.T. Davis didn't care. It was all about attaching a Black woman's face to their romanticized remembrance of servitude.

R.T. Davis's racist advertisers didn't care that they were erasing the horrors of slavery. Only the profit mattered, and profit they did. The Aunt Jemima generated profound wealth, but as usual, there was no trickle down in the economy. Green was not only paid pennies for her image, she was also barely compensated for her live portrayals of Aunt Jemima at numerous trade shows around the nation. She served pancakes to delighted white patrons, as they relived a fantasy, and she reenacted the biggest white lie of all: that Black people liked being enslaved. She was exploited to keep alive the sickening tale that life for Black people on plantations was a charmed experience.

Decades later, Quaker Oats finally admitted to the egregious racist origins of Aunt Jemima, and recently announced a rebranding of their Aunt Jemima line of products. Nancy Green’s appropriated likeness has been retired.

But what about Nancy Green the person? Was she able to die a millionaire after being dehumanized, co-opted and profited from as the face of the Aunt Jemima product line? Hardly. The royalties she received for portraying Aunt Jemima were slim. In fact, she worked as a housekeeper not long before her death in 1923.

This lives on. The problematic issues of representation, equity and racist manipulation in the culture-shaping world of advertising, they live on. And the real world implications are no joke.


JAY: What does Black liberation look like to you? 


Gene Shelton: What does Black liberation look like to me? That is a very good question. And my answer would be it doesn't look good at this point in time, in life, as we seem to be running in place. And that is so unfortunate. There is a reason why our liberation has not taken form and that's simply because of systemic racism in this country. It keeps holding us down. It's something that is centuries old, and it needs to change and now is the moment to see that change take place. 


JAY: I definitely feel the same as far as the current state of things. If you were to share a vision of what Black liberation could look like in reality, like we got to a certain point, what would make you say, Okay, this is it, we are a liberated people. 


GS: We are liberated people when we are equal people in the eyes of dominant white society in this country. And we're not there yet. So in terms of equality in education, in terms of quality in health care, in terms of the judicial system, the penal system, all the way down to local judges and prosecutors, all of that has to change and the only way we can make that change is that we care enough about it to vote and make the change. And people who pander to the stereotypes, and systemic racism in this country, get them out of their jobs. We've been in this country far too long and we are pretty much to this day still living within a system of slavery. It's called something different. But it's-- a knee is on our necks in this country, and that knee has to come off. And only we, and with the help of others who have the empathy to understand and visualize that our circumstances are not the same. We help build this country, our level of intelligence is there, no matter how you try to suppress us, we always rise and come through, we have given our lives for equality in this country. And for all those people who died for our benefit. We owe it to them. 


JAY: Could you tell us a bit about you know, your areas of expertise? And in what ways do you see your work contributing towards moving towards Black liberation? 


GS: I think a key thing that I talk about in my work is media literacy. It is the understanding of the difference between art and life. So much of advertising is rooted in the difference between art and life. And a lot of people with low levels of media literacy don't understand it. If they see a visual or an image on a computer screen or TV screen they take art or fact. Art is created, real life is not. There is an excellent commercial, it's one that I talk a lot about and it is a Doritos commercial. A young African American man knocks on the door to take this little boy's mother out. And he shows his aggression by slapping the man and pointing at him, saying, “Don't touch my mother or don't touch my Doritos.” To many people he was just a precocious kid. But your level of media literacy should tell you what they are doing is pandering to this image of violence in Black men starts at an early age. It starts from childhood, you have every right to be afraid of them, to cross the street when you see them coming, hold your purse if they're walking near you. There's a fear. And instilling this fear in the minds of so many works against us. It denies us equality and fairness.


JAY: I understand completely what you're saying. I see these commercials very often and the point you make about distinction between art and life is such a crucial concept. Because these things aren't necessarily just benign representations. How much of it do you think is intentional in order to reinforce these negative stereotypes? And how much do you think it is by accident, if that even is a thing and just like what the folks in these rooms making these creative decisions, that's just their perception of things but may not have any intended malevolent intentions. 


GS: If the director of an ad is on a set, what he's bringing to the set is his truth or her truth. This is the image or the feelings that are were taught to him in his home. If you're sitting in the living room with your family and there is a Black man on screen comments that are made, they bring what their own views are about marginalized people. And in their minds this is their truth and this is how what they believe, but they bring it, they share it with others and do not see the danger of their direction. Because that's all they know. That's how they were raised. That's what their parents taught them. There is a reason why so many images that we have in advertising show Black people as servants, as maids, as butlers. Uncle Ben. Aunt Jemima. Those things are changing. And corporations are trying to improve their image. But that's it. We are good for cooking, cleaning and comic relief. That's it. 


JAY: The three C's. 


GS: Yeah, so we have to have not only directors of commercials, but of television programs and film sets, to maintain the truth and show equity and inclusion in commercials and do not pander to stereotypes. It's so important to have those decision makers or those gatekeepers, those who decide what we see and hear and who sell us products, are aware of that. Because it's easy to sell to a stereotype. It doesn't require any work. 


JAY: There's a large number of the mainstream population that will never even meet a Black person for a large part of their life. You know, it's easy to play up on these, I would imagine in the, in the advertising without really being concerned about pushback. However, I think we have been, fortunately, for the past couple of years, seeing a lot of pushback against some of these stereotypical and racist ads. You mentioned on Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Can you speak on your thoughts around those representations and the changes that the corporations are saying that they'll make?


GS: Well, I hope that they make these changes and so with these changes, it speaks to the fact that what took me so long? Did it take white Americans to join Black Americans on the streets in protest in unity, during a pandemic, during a period of racial strife and division in this country, for you to finally see what you have been doing and trying to sell has been wrong. There are commercials that should mirror life. And one of my favorite commercials is to talk about the Philadelphia cream cheese commercial. There are a lot of Black men who are married to white women. There are a lot of Black men who just have white girlfriends. And they are in bed together and they have children together. But when you're trying to sell that image to white America and they are watching television with their children and they see a Black man in bed with a white woman eating Philadelphia cream cheese, it's time to call for boycott. “How dare you, we'll get you where it hurts because my children should not see that.” But it's a reality. And so much of advertising wants to deny the reality of America. So it's a moment of our time to make those changes and put people in a position to tell the truth. One of my favorite commercials is a Cheerios commercial. And it's a biracial couple with a daughter who reminds me of my own granddaughter and they're pouring-- the daughter is pouring Cheerios on her Black father's chest while he's sleeping on the sofa. People are alarmed about that. “How dare you Cheerios! No more Cheerios in this house.” So I think advertising needs to tell the truth.


JAY: So you started out by making this distinction between art and life. Right? So and I assume when you say sell the truth, you mean represent life to a more accurate degree? 


GS: Yes. 


JAY: And so where does the art come in with this because it is considered by many to be an art form – advertising.


GS: Well, I think that it is art because it's created, but that art can also offend other people, so but that art that you create should mirror real life. I hope I'm making that clear. That trying to make that decision, it is art. But when you are an artist, something that could be criticized or you can critique it or you can, if you don't like it, you can make it hurt where it counts the most -- boycott the product. So there has to be a truth in advertising. It's art, but you have to be honest about it. 


JAY: Let's go back to something you mentioned initially with media literacy. And I would like it if you could sort of define what that means for our audience. And then define like how that can be used to take certain actions. I know you mentioned boycotting products or companies. Can you speak about media literacy, the connection with what that would allow us to do? 


GS: Well, media literacy is a scale and your level of media literacy can be high or low. People with high levels of media literacy can look at a commercial and know that it is paid art. It is paid for and it's selling something. Other people with low levels of media literacy would look at that commercial and think it's life. There are dimensions of media literacy that are very important. And the most important is the cognitive dimension, to be able to understand the message that you see on the computer screen or the television screen or the theater screen for a motion picture, that is cognitive. To be able to read words on a printed page. That's all cognitive level of media literacy. There is an emotional, there is an emotional dimension of media literacy, that can be anything from creating laughter, to sadness, to anger. The Philadelphia cream cheese commercial created anger in a lot of people. So people with a high level of media literacy will not be angry about that. It's a commercial. It's art. So people with low levels of media literacy get all up in arms, and they angry because they see it. We have a moral dimension which teaches us the difference between right and wrong. And one of the most important dimensions is the aesthetic. When we as members of the audience or the reader of a book or reader of a newspaper watch a video, we can look at it and be a critic. Because we are all critics in many ways, we see something we either it either resonates with us and we like it or we don't. So we have a standard of what is considered a great book. So we compare all those books to that or we consider a certain film, a great film, and we compare, consider all films against that. So those are the dimensions of media literacy that can be either high or low but each and every one of them are very important. 


JAY: How would someone go about developing a higher level of media literacy?



GS: It's a skill that we all can develop is something that can be taught, but you have to want to want to increase your level of media literacy. You have to want to improve your level of media literacy, because creators of art can pretend to take us any number of places. But I think there's another key element about advertising. And that's the acronym ADA. And it's so important whether we're talking about commercials, whether we're talking about print ads in newspapers or magazines. ADA is about attention. Advertisers must get your attention. And after they get your attention, they must create an interest on your part to want to buy that product. So get your attention, get your interest, create a desire for you to have that product. And then you have to act upon that product. And act means go in your wallet, pull out your credit card or your cash and pay for it. Give the advertiser what he wanted all along with your money. So they're all tied in hand in hand. 


JAY: So I'm interested. I wanted to dive deeper into this. So like for the average person, if they still had the desire to develop a higher media literacy, would that involve reading certain books? Would that involve just an awareness and trying to catch it? What does that look like in practice? 


GS: Start with something that you like. Start with a book, start with a movie, start with something that you enjoy, and see if as you watch it, you can determine what's actually happening. Why are you interested? Why are you watching this? You look at a screen and you just don't take it for face value. You question what you are seeing, and it goes from there.


JAY: Could you speak briefly about your career, how you got into this and where it's taken you?


GS: I won a scholarship to Kent State University in 1968. As a freshman. I first encountered racism as a high school student because I won a scholarship to a summer journalism program where high school journalists were invited to live in the dorms and create a newspaper and write articles and things like that. And I was the only African American who was accepted. And so this was my first time in life being the only one. I am clearly the only one in the room who looks like me. And there is something about numbers. I was called names. So many dirty and nasty things were done to me all in the, “Oh, we're just kidding.” It was just, “we're just doing fun.” I'm not a joke. But one of the things that carried me through was that I'll show you, I'll show you I'm just as equal and as good as you. You assume that I'm not capable of doing this, but I'll show you. And so even that first week, the professor who was teaching us used, we were given an assignment to write a lead. And she used my example as one of the best ones in the class and the class was quiet. You know, so that was my moment of truth. Check that I was convinced because everything I had learned was that they're superior to me. They are smarter than I am. That's what the media taught me about them. But what I saw I didn't respect in the least bit. It did not stop me from coming to Kent State. I started as a journalism major. I went into PR, based on the fact I grew up loving Motown music, and I had an opportunity to move out to LA. And I ended up working for Motown Records. So every single field that I've been in, there has been systemic racism involved. Record industry, film industry, television industry, it's been there. I teach advertising and PR on a weekly basis to a majority of freshmen. I give them a week of lectures and seeing commercials and print ads to talk about advertising, to talk about media literacy, to talk about PR, and with the understanding that there is a big difference between advertising and PR. Advertising is paid. Advertising is about check writing. PR is about earned. It has to be-- you have to convince somebody, persuade them. And that's why they pair advertising and public relations as the persuasive industries in media. I tell people all the time, I wrote my way into the record business because I was a big fan of Motown music, and I started writing bios. I wrote Michael Jackson's bio for “Off the Wall.” And that started a wonderful relationship. I was his publicist. The very first artist I ever worked with was Rick James. My expertise is in music. And I would have to say PR. But until I came to Kent State as a graduate student, but I never had a PR class, it was like on the job training, and I owe it all to journalism. 


JAY: Yeah, I'm sure there's some interesting Rick James stories as well.


GS: I love him. He was just, he was a perfect gentleman to me. I had such admiration and respect for Rick and his representation. So a lot of groundwork was broken. My career advanced because of Rick James, so much appreciation and respect for him. But it was all about writing, with Michael it was all about writing. He had turned down everybody's bio. And so the director said, “Gene, you want to take a crack at Michael, we can't get him to approve, or his managers to approve anybody else that we've written.” Heck, I'm a journalist, I better be able to handle a Michael Jackson bio. And just like that it was approved. And they went out with every copy of “Off the Wall.”


JAY: So this is interesting, because it's big to me that Black folks control our own images and representations. And you controlled that to a certain degree for two of the biggest names ever in music in general. What was that experience like in terms of being responsible for how they were perceived by the public and you know, the ways that you were responsible for? 


GS: Well, the great challenge to me in representing Michael or Rick or any A-list artist was that the magazine industry was segregated. You know, if not, for a man by the name of John Johnson and the creation of Look magazine, which he modeled Ebony after Look. There was no getting Black artists in Rolling Stone. I mean, it was Michael who broke the MTV color barrier. He had a number one record with “Don't Stop til You Get Enough” and MTV refused to air his video until CBS said if you don't air Michael Jackson's video then you won't get Bruce Springsteen. They played hardball. And Michael broke the MTV color barrier. So it's just because Black people weren't on MTV, only a select Blacks were covered in Life magazine. But John Johnson gave Black America its own Life. Where the image was positive, the focus was on education, business, fashion, a glamorous world, advancement. If Life won't give it to you, John Johnson did. So yeah, that was it was overwhelming to do that. And it came with a great deal of responsibility. 


JAY: You mentioned John Johnson, do you see today any other media figures or Black organizations following that same legacy in a valuable way? 


GS: Bob Johnson, who created BET. There are so many African American men who have trailblazed the path for the rest of us. Whether it was Tom Joyner in radio, but there are others who have followed John Johnson's path and his model to elevate Black America to say your lives are important. You can rise to any occasion, you can create, you can do whatever they do and you can do it better. You just need the opportunity. 


JAY: And so we've spoke on representations of Black folks and how they may impact non-Black people. But what does it the look like when we see these images of ourselves? What are the potentially negative ways that seeing stereotypical or racist imagery of ourselves can impact us and how we perceive ourselves?


GS: It's dangerous, in that you have to care about it. You have to care about your image. If you don't have the confidence in yourself, if you don't believe in yourself, you can't be productive. You have been taught that you are lazy, that you are a thug, that you'll do anything. You represent social disorder. So you have to start thinking like I'm gonna get out of this. I am smart. I believe. I have the confidence in myself, to get out of here, to get educated, to learn a craft, to earn a paycheck. I don't have to sell drugs, use drugs, create havoc and fear when I walk down the streets. It starts with each individual to recognize that the damage that has been done and we are the ones to stop it. 


JAY: Yeah, I mean, it seems to me that there needs to be very intentional efforts taking place within our own community to empower ourselves and how we see ourselves and our self worth. But I do believe that it starts with us trying to develop systems where we can become more media literate and understand like, not just what they're saying but how it's wrong. I'm optimistic because I think I see more people paying attention to this. I am optimistic because I do see people boycotting these images in ways I don't think we've seen before. But I personally think that the next step is now to develop systems to where we rely on ourselves for these positive images. So we know who we are. That way when we are confronted with negative images it won't necessarily have the same negative impact that it otherwise could have. What are your thoughts on that? 


GS: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think that when-- One thing about it, regardless of how famous you are, how successful you are, whether you are an Oprah Winfrey, whether you are a Samuel L. Jackson, whether you are a LeBron James, regardless of how successful you are in life, and you got that success because you are a journalist, an athlete, a politician, or rapper or whatever, when you walk in the room, what people see first is skin color. And you are reminded of that. I mean, it's happened to Oprah Winfrey. It's happened to Samuel L. Jackson. You are reminded that you might be famous, but you're still Black. So we have to take our community and begin an uprising, an uplifting and to, say, empower ourselves. And because the dominant white society wants to blame us, we're victims here. But well, you caused that. That's why so many whites seek justification in white police officers killing unarmed Black men. They're just doing their job. And they know that they're going to get away with it. So we have to be in the room. Get in the room. Create. Whether it's business, whether it's production companies, whether it is new media, create. Elevate. It's very important. And understand that others will come along and help us. We, our civil rights movement, everything that we go through, we had help, we didn't do it by ourselves. The March, people died to vote, thrown in jail, images of Emmett Till. So much reminds us where we have been and where some of us still are. We need to move beyond that. And we need to unite, work together to elevate and I keep saying elevate. 


GS: It's a powerful word. I appreciate that. So a couple things stood out to me. You mentioned images of Emmett Till. And you also mentioned the police brutality. And we're seeing images of this constantly now. It seems to me that there may be some elements of PR or advertising strategies used with these images that we're seeing in the way different news organizations talk about them. Like it’s not just like facts. It's not just life, as you described before. Some of it does seem to be art in the way that they're crafting these circumstances and outcomes in order to gain favor for a certain cause. And I say that because it's like, you know, advertising isn't just necessarily selling people a product. At the end of the day, obviously, that's the bottom line, but it also shapes public perception and public opinion on things. So can you speak to what you're seeing in terms of the way that things like police brutality are portrayed in relation to similarities with PR and/or advertising.


GS: Cable news has become all about advertising. It's about building the audience. Regardless of the truth of the message. It's not objective, the perception that police are doing their job and they have every right to put a knee on a Black man's neck, even though he’s begging them, telling him I can't breathe, I can't breathe. And you like, you having at a country club enjoying yourself, playing cricket. It makes no sense. But it builds the audience. And so the larger the audience, the more you get for advertising so you're going to support this. The news is so slanted, based on being driven by advertising with cable news. That's something that Roger Ailes understood. There are some people in this country that aren’t interested in hearing the truth. They want to hear reinforcement of their pre-existing beliefs. And as long as television is telling them you're good to think that way, fear them. Police are good. They save people. I look at cable news to hear both sides. I don't, I'm not blindsided, that there are opposing views on the Fox side. These people have a job and they are reporting based on what they are told to report on them. Personally, they might not think that way. But they get a paycheck to think that way. So they're very supportive of the right. They're supportive of police and their actions. And you get the total opposite if you look at CNN or MSNBC. News has kind of lost its way. Journalism has lost its way. Facts and fake just like merge, who can tell the difference? And it all goes back to having a high level of media literacy. You know, journalism should know better. Do your job. 


JAY: I'm really fascinated in public relations as a tool of persuasion, and advertising as well. And so I've done some reading about the gentleman considered the father of public relations, Edward Bernays. Could you tell us a bit about who he was and how he sort of transformed the way products are advertised? 


GS: Edward Bernays was a master. I believe he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bacon was something from a pig that people threw away. Black people used it, found a taste for bacon. How do you turn it into the most in demand breakfast food? Edward Bernays did that. There have been advertising campaigns about women's smoking. He is considered the father of advertising-- PR, excuse me. But yeah, that it's all very important because you can sell anybody anything and it all goes back to that ADA thing: get their attention, create their interest, make them have a, create a desire for it, and then they'll act upon it. 


JAY: Yeah, and this is-- Both of those campaigns he ran are super interesting to me. You mentioned the bacon being part of breakfast, nobody even questions that now. If you're a meat eater, then it's very likely you will enjoy bacon for breakfast and just think that that's something that is part of breakfast. Even with the women smoking his campaign, right, was the one who brought that to be something that's socially acceptable. And both of these things, to me indicate that it's more than just selling a product at the end of the day. There's cultural shifts that can take place if these things are done to the most effective degree. And so when folks ask me like, Okay, well, let's just do is just an ad, you know, just turn off the TV, or it’s just an ad, I can watch it not be affected. But, you know, repetition is important. If you if you keep repeating these images, then that can have a huge effect on individuals, how they perceive the world and the actions they take, right?


GS: Our health is very important. I want our people that focus on health, the things that alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, all those things, are damaging to our health. We need to be as healthy as we can. Strong mind, strong body. Make the best of you. Give the world your best. That's how you empower yourself. Know that you own a seat at the table and your voice will be heard. But you have to want to sit at that table because that change will take place.


JAY: All right, all right. So just like that we're at the end of this episode of Black History Year. This podcast is produced by PushBlack, the nation's largest nonprofit Black media company.

You know it PushBlack we agree with Marcus Garvey when he said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” I'm guessing you probably feel like that's important, too. I mean, you're here at the end of a podcast about Black history. You matter. Your choice to be here matters. It lets us know that you value the work. PushBlack exists because we saw we have to take matters into our own hands. You make Push Black happen with your contributions at Most people do about five or 10 bucks a month but everything makes a difference. Thanks for supporting the work. 

Special thanks to Detroit Motor City Woman Studio and Andrea Daniel. 

The Black History Year production team includes Tareq Alani, Patrick Sanders, William Anderson, Jareyah Bradley, Brooke Brown, Shonda Buchanan, Eskedar Getahun, Leslie Taylor-Grover, Abeni Jones, Akua Tay, Darren Wallace and our producer, Cydney Smith. For Limina House, our producers are Jessica Rugh Frantz and Sasha Kai Parker, who also edits the podcast. Black History Year’s Executive Producers are Julian Walker for PushBlack and Mikel Ellcessor for Limina House.

I'm Jay for PushBlack. Thanks for checking us out. Peace.