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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Advertising pioneer Tom Burrell reflects on media coverage of Ferguson, New York

Advertising pioneer Tom Burrell reflects on media coverage of Ferguson, New York

Advertising pioneer and media insider Tom Burrell (Photo by Cassandra West)



By Cassandra West

Cassandra West is a Chicago-area journalist and digital media consultant.


Tom Burrell, the founder of Burrell Communications Group in Chicago, revolutionized the images of African Americans in television and thereby changed the face of American advertising. Burrell, who won an ivoh Award of Appreciation a few years ago, now writes and speaks nationwide on the issues of media and race. He’s also a thoughtful and much respected source of insight on the power of media messaging and its impact on American life and culture.

The TV ads he helped produce addressed racial stereotypes and greatly influenced the way that corporations targeted African American customers. 

We sought Burrell’s reflections and observations in the wake of protests and media reports that followed grand jury decisions in New York and Missouri to not indict police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men.

Here is an edited transcript of our in-person conversation with him:


Cassandra West: How have the media helped or distorted the central message of those reacting to the grand jury decisions?

Tom Burrell: In this case, what I’m grateful for is the media staying on the issue. The biggest problem that movements have is sustainability. I think that’s particularly true with black people. It’s increasingly true with this culture overall and extremely true with this culture as it relates to younger people. It’s this disinclination, or inability, to keep something going.

President Obama said something interesting when he said we have to be patient and take these things one step at a time. [He] used the word persistence. And I was wondering if that was a message presented in the way that he felt appropriate … ‘keep it going; don’t make a lot of fuss today and then disappear.’

The one thing I’ll say about media in this instance is that they seem to be doing a good job of covering the responses that are taking place in various parts of the country and even the world — [In] Gaza, Europe, [and], France. That’s good. The one thing the media hardly ever does is highlight positive occurrences.


West: As you have said previously, it’s often noted that the images of 1960s civil rights protesters being attacked by the police marked a turning. Can you talk about images then and now?

Burrell: I have never seen anybody die before. I’ve never seen anybody get killed. And now young people are actually seeing [this]. It’s not a movie. It’s real. And that’s part of what the reaction is. That’s part of what even leads some people who’ve even been accused of being racist to say, “This is ridiculous. I’m looking right at it.”


West: No one seems to have emerged as the leader of the protests. There’s no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. What’s your take on this lack of leadership figures in today’s social movements?

Burrell: I hope it’s a positive sign that we can disengage from this pattern of learned helplessness — that we’re basically waiting for somebody to come rescue us. That may be one of the outcomes of this new age of technology and social media — people realizing what they can do for themselves. That extends down through society. As I said a few years ago, we’ll be able to go all the way to publishing a book without a publisher. We can get a platinum album without a music production company. We can have a television show without going to the network.

I have said and I will continue to say that there’s nothing more powerful to effect attitudes and behavior than media messaging. Media messaging is just a euphemism for propaganda. Propaganda is a term that unfortunately has been propagandized itself into meaning something bad, but it isn’t. I keep saying that the only way we’re going to get out of this image of ourselves is through propaganda, positive propaganda.


West: Speaking of positive, you coined the phrase “positive realism” during your advertising days. It means depicting African-Americans in authentic and relevant ways, right? Is it still being used?

Burrell: Yeah. That was the term we used in the work that we did at Burrell. Positive realism. It is still taking place, but positive realism is not as easy to be effective as it was 30, 40 years ago because we hadn’t seen ourselves projected in a positive way, so it had much more impact. Now it’s much more complicated because racism itself is much more complicated. The language has been so skillfully subordinated through a kind of a subtle, ongoing undercurrent that you don’t use the words, the language, the images anymore, but everything is still there.


West: How do you think this messaging can be done in another way?

Burrell: We’ve got to find those people who are willing to say, “let me try to put my skills and talent toward building something.” Whether that person be in corporate America, or entertainment or sports or clergy. First, you’ve got to get people who are willing to work together and put their egos aside. You’ve got to get people who are willing to get together without feeling there’s a headline that goes with it. Frankly, the most important things that are accomplished in this country — or perhaps even in the world — are quietly done.