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How a 400-Year-Old Marketing Campaign is Still Killing Us

Ahmaud Arbery went out for a jog on February 23 and tragically found himself in a Black American nightmare. A nightmare that ended as far too many do, with the victim unable to state his or her case leaving the public with two burning questions, "Why did this happen?" and "How has no one been arrested?"

If this story wasn't already heavy enough, simultaneously there has been a heartbreaking series of videos showing police arresting and brutally assaulting black men for simply "not wearing a mask." Meanwhile, in that same city, large groups of white Americans are gathered in the park receiving waterbottles hand-delivered from that same police force, oh yeah, and no masks.

The contrast of these images and the two months of disregard for Ahmad's story, reveals that even during a time when we are facing a common enemy that should bring humanity together, our flawed prejudicial system of American justice bears its racist design. Some would say the system is broken, but I struggle with that because can something truly be broken if it's operating exactly as it was intended?

To better understand this design, let's take a step back and look at the big picture of society through the lens of marketing and branding. Within the methods of the advertising industry, we can start to see how a deep emotional connection to a single idea fueled by reinforcing propaganda can lead to an unconscious bias that withstands generations.

How something started over 400 years ago, can lead to a murder today. 

Brainwashed, By Tom Burrell

To look through this lens, I must refer to one of my favorite books, Brainwashed. Published on February 1, 2010, Brainwashed was written by advertising mogul Tom Burrell. Known for his mantra, "Black people are not dark-skinned white people," Tom Burrell is a pioneer in changing the perception of African American representation in advertising and marketing. He pursued the importance of nuanced black representation to spread more positive propaganda around Black people.

He opens the book by paralleling the brand-building goals of advertising with the direct marketing strategies of slavery. And it's the most critically insightful truth we can face as not only Black Americans, but all Americans. Because it's not a metaphor, not an example, not an analogy, or speculation, it is a fact that America branded Black people both physically and psychologically.

Established in 1619, Black people became "America's first big brand.

The book looks at how in the early days of forming The United States of America into the "land of the free," our founding fathers found themselves having to reconcile a glaring contradiction. As Burrell put it, they were trying "to rationalize and reconcile the development of a single society with two outrageously contradictory parts: one built on the concept of human freedom, the other built on a vicious, governmentally sanctioned destruction of human freedom."

Lead by Thomas Jefferson, whom Burrell deems the "propagandist extraordinaire, chief strategist, and creative director," the founding fathers "sold the idea of white supremacy to the masses — all the masses."

So if white supremacy was the big idea, what was the execution?

"The Solution: an effective marketing campaign created to not only force the institution of slavery to fit within the budding democracy, but one aimed at convincing both master and slave that blacks had always been and would forever be mentally, physically, spiritually, and culturally inferior." - Tom Burrell, Brainwashed, 2010

This was a solution that came complete with a sales promotion and PR strategy that used religion, law, politics, art, literature, and even science as its media plan. 

Lastly, every great marketing campaign ends with a call to action, the "CTA."

It's the result we want from the consumer. The thing we want you to do: Purchase. Support. Buy, Sign. Remember, etc. Marketing tactics slowly create a series of biases that can be either in favor of a product or against a product. It's through the connectivity of that bias messaging that primes the consumer to act. In this case, that action is harm against Black Americans. That was the intention then, and that is what's happening now. 

Throughout the book, Burrell sounds the alarm like Laurence Fishburne at the end of School Daze, calling for Black people to wake up to the negative propaganda that has ultimately brainwashed us through this masterful marketing campaign. He is opening our eyes to the harmful subconscious system playing out against us and calling for a change to promote positive propaganda around Black people. Today we see this positive propaganda manifest in social movements like Black Lives Matter, Black Girls Rock, #BlackGirlMagic, #BlackBoyJoy, Girl Trek, and so many more.

These movements work in concert with one another to overturn the years of negative propaganda, which has lead to an unconscious bias that puts Black lives in danger every day.

Brainwashed into Unconscious Bias

The years of consciously seeded negative propaganda has grown into an infectious unconscious bias towards Black Americans. A bias that is engrained in the psyche of Americans and the justice system of America.

The unconscious bias against Black people in America is derived from the fact that not one but two brands were born through this foundational marketing campaign. Sometimes we fail to remember there was no collective "white" until it was in opposition to a collective "black." Making white a brand, just as much as Black. 


One brand had power. One didn't. One brand controlled their narrative. One didn't. One had a big budget and a government-backed media plan. One didn't. One brand had humanity, and one was merely a product. 

The success of every great marketing campaign is to make the consumer bias to one brand over another. The more similar the makeup of the product is, the harder the advertising has to work to differentiate. And for a marketing campaign to continue to proliferate this long, it goes to show you how hard America will work to hold on to these original ideas at the systematic level. (i.e. Redlining, The War on Drugs, Stop and Frisk, Gentrification, etc.)

This is why it is imperative that we work overtime to overturn these harmful ideas and mindsets. Whether it's through pushing positive propaganda as Burrell has done throughout his career, speaking up in a meeting, checking your own biases at the door, or simply treating your fellow American with kindness and compassion, we all have a role to play in changing an outdated system of the past and creating a new system for the future.

If you find yourself asking why, or how could a tragedy like Ahmaud Arbery happen in 2020, I hope you can see how we are all fighting a big idea pushed to Americans through an ill-intentioned marketing plan that was established over 400-years-ago. And it's going to take a lot of hard work in the opposite direction to overcome unconscious biases and seed new ideas. Through awareness of our own biases and intentional positive propaganda, we can begin to change hearts, change minds, and ultimately change what justice looks like in this country.

Rest In Power

##AmaudArbery#SeanReed#BreonnaTaylor#BothamJean#AtatianaJefferson #JonathanFerrell #RenishaMcBride #JordanEdwards #JordanDavis #AltonSterling #AiyanaJones #MikeBrown #TamirRice #Charleston9 #TrayvonMartin #SeanBell #OscarGrant #SandraBland #PhilandoCastile #CoreyJones #JohnCrawford #TerrenceCrutcher #KeithScott #CliffordGlover #ClaudeReese #RandyEvan #YvonneSmallwood #AmadouDiallo #WalterScott #EricGarner #FreddieGray and so many more.

[P.S. I know sometimes it can be hard to see this invisible system of injustice when you don’t live it, but let the current threat of Covid-19 be your metaphor. It's invisible to the eye, yet it's all around you. It alters your way of life and changes how you treat those around you. You can't really understand the severity of it until it happens to you, or someone you love. And those who aren’t negatively affected by it, care more about the money than the harm to humanity. Oh yeah, and it disproportionately affects black and brown people.]

Purchase Brainwashed Book: Here

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