An Interesting Series of Commercials

In 1969, African-American students at Vassar College took over several administrative offices, demanding a department of Africana Studies, more black professors, and a special advisor to black students. Most of these requests were duly granted. But that’s not all the students were asking for–they also wanted separate housing, off-campus. Desegregation of schools and buses and restaurants in the South had happened less than a decade before (and was probably still going on, since “all deliberate speed” was a rather loosely interpreted phrase), and yet these students wanted to resegregate themselves. The administration, needless to say, was less than psyched about this plan, though the students did get their request for a short time.

It would seem that this trend towards resegregation is taking place again, thirty years later, but this time it’s the segregation of music videos, television networks, and, of all things, fast food restaurants. Yes, really–Burger King’s recent advertising campaign has really convinced me that they are trying to be The Black Burger Joint. These ads rarely show humans. They don’t tell little stories, like McDonald’s ads, or provide testimonials to Dave, like Wendy’s. Rather, they just push the product–showing you pictures fries and burgers, steaming and dripping onions or cheese. But is that all they’re pushing? Listen to the music in the background. One commercial featured Motown-type vocals singing a song–which I have since been informed is the theme from The Jeffersons, a ’70s TV show about a black family moving into an upscale white neighborhood–that goes, “We’re movin’ on up/to the East side, to a big [something] apartment in the sky . . . we finally got our piece of the pie.” The text that flashed underneath the food was “Now that’s an uptown deal–at a downtown price.” In another commercial, the ambience is provided by a big-band recording of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And the once commercial in this series which did have people, from several months ago, showed three black women singing and dancing a la the Supremes, complete with a flashback in black and white. And of course there is Burger King’s current slogan: “When You Have it Your Way, It Just Tastes Better.” I think all of this is a concentrated and targeted effort by Burger King to appeal to the downtrodden, and particularly historically down-trodden African-Americans, by offering them their “piece of the pie,” an opportunity to “have it [their] way,” and to move on up and be part of the number when the saints go marching in. Empowerment through TV advertising–you’ve just got to wonder what Malcolm X must be thinking right now.

To read more about the student takeover at Vassar, check out the entries from 30 April-2 November 1969 in this chronology of Vassar History (partially compiled by my old housemate, David Ley).

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