Advertising mogul Tom Burrell

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Pioneering advertising executive explains the title and backstory of his book Brainwashed and how marketing perpetuates the selling of Black inferiority.

Marketing communications pioneer and Advertising Hall of Fame inductee Tom Burrell is credited with changing the face of American advertising. He began his career while still in college, working as a copywriter during his senior year, and worked for several agencies as he prepared to start the company that would bear his name. Now retired—though he remains chairman emeritus—he's founded the nonprofit Resolution Project that promotes intra-racial dialogue. Burrell is also the author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.


Tavis: Tom Burrell is an advertising, marketing and communications pioneer who founded one of the first Black-owned and operated advertising firms in this country nearly 40 years ago.
He is now chairman emeritus of Burrell Communications, which has finally given Mr. Burrell the time to write his first book. It’s called “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.” Full disclosure here – the book is published by Smiley Books. But I’m pleased to have on this program a pioneer in this country, Tom Burrell. Tom, good to see you.
Tom Burrell: Thanks. Good to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here because this –
Burrell: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
Tavis: No, this book is so chock full of things that will challenge us. I’ve said many times that I think television at its best challenges folk to re-examine the assumptions they hold and expand their inventory of ideas, and I think this book does that.
It challenges us to re-examine assumptions, it helps if we’re willing to wrestle with it and expand our inventory of ideas, and that’s why I wanted to have you on the program.
Burrell: Great, great.
Tavis: Let me start with why this is the central question that you tackle in the text, and the question is this – why it is that Black folk lag behind everybody else, it seems, in every area of American life. That’s the central question of the book?
Burrell: That’s the central question.
Tavis: Why is that the question?
Burrell: That is the question – I’ve been in this business for 45 years and I was watching how things developed in this country since its founding, and I saw that it was the beginning of what happened in this nation, the need to reconcile slavery and democracy, that really basically set us up, set up the nation.
We were sold a bill of goods – the myth of Black inferiority – as a means by which to justify this irreconcilable contradiction. Slavery, then, in and of itself was not the issue as much as the justification, because that’s where the brainwashing began. We had to justify it.
So we found out that the culprit was right there with me. It’s in my business, in my profession – marketing communications, which is really another word for propaganda, and that is what basically set this whole thing up and we have been bombarded with negative perceptions ever since.
The idea that we are somehow less than, not as good as – Black inferiority, white supremacy, that’s the thing that happens.
Tavis: Before I dig down on this, for that person right now that’s getting ready to change the channel because they think we’re about to engage in a half an hour conversation –
Burrell: About history?
Tavis: About slavery.
Burrell: Oh, about slavery.
Tavis: And that we Negroes just need to get over it.
Burrell: Yes.
Tavis: Tell me why the conversation is deeper than that and why that notion is so silly, when people say y’all just need to get over it. It’s been 400 years, Negroes, get over it.
Burrell: Well, the whole thing about it is that it – there were slave narratives written in 1933. It is fresh, it is not ancient history. There are intergenerational issues that we have that have been passed down just like Grandma, Great-Grandma’s favorite recipe.
The whole idea of learned helplessness, the whole idea of race-based self-esteem deficiency has been passed down. We have a chapter in the book dealing with family relationships, and I get the question all the time, Tavis – why is it that Black men can’t be responsible fathers?
I said, “Well, we really do need to deal with that issue and we need to call Black men to task, but we also need to understand that just a few generations ago it was illegal for a Black man to be a father.”
I’m not talking about ancient history, I’m talking about just a few generations ago it was illegal for our forefathers to be fathers. We had no control over our family structure and we could go to sleep one night, and the next morning our family had been sold off to all kinds of places. We don’t need to get over it, we need to work our way through it.
Tavis: When we say, though, “brainwashed,” who are we talking about here? Black folk being brainwashed, white folk being brainwashed, all of us?
Burrell: All of us were brainwashed. Black people were brainwashed to buy into the concept of Black inferiority; white people were brainwashed to buy into the concept of white supremacy. And we all bought it – we all bought it, and that is what we are dealing with today, and that’s, to your question, why we remain at the top of almost every bad list.
You want to talk about educational achievement, you want to talk about dropout rates, you want to talk about out-of-wedlock childbirth, teen pregnancies, you want to talk about HIV/AIDS, we are – there’s no reason why we should continue to be at the top of that list, and that’s why I wrote the book.
Tavis: Since you have just made this point now, that Black folk seem to be at the top of all of those lists and there was a narrative constructed that we were brainwashed by, that white folk were brainwashed by, there was also a narrative constructed against Jews, an anti-propaganda campaign.
Burrell: Absolutely.
Tavis: I know you’ve heard this question a thousand times; I want to hear your answer here on national television. Why is it that Black folk still sit at the top of every negative category, to your point of a moment ago, and Jews seem to have done all right?
Burrell: Well, when we came to this country we were stripped of everything. We were stripped of our culture, we were stripped of our religion, we were stripped of our relationships with each other, family structure. We lost track of who we were, where we came from, what our name was, where our home was. We had nothing. We had no religion, we had no language – we had no language.
Contrast that with Jews coming here. They had a central religion. In all these permutations of slavery that they went through, they kept their families generally together, they kept their religion, their customs, their traditions, their language, and that makes the difference.
The whole idea is that Jews never had to be systematically sold this bill of goods in order to justify slavery within a democracy. We did, and we were perfect pigeons for it.
Tavis: We should be clear – that’s not to diminish or compare tragedies here. We’re not trying to diminish.
Burrell: We’re not trying to compare tragedies, and that’s a specious kind of argument that people get into. The thing is we do need to get some kind of frame of reference. We’re talking about 400 years of this.
Tavis: You mentioned the media, and I mentioned at the top of this conversation that you are an icon in the advertising world. If you haven’t heard of Burrell Communications that’s because you don’t know anything about advertising. But Tom Burrell, nearly 40 years ago, founded this firm and you coined a phrase that everybody in the advertising industry has come to quote you about, that Black people are not dark-skinned white people.
Burrell: Right.
Tavis: Black people are not dark-skinned white people, and so all these companies that want to hire your firm to help them get their message through to Black people had to come through you and wrestle with what that meant, and you did a lot of teaching over 40 years.
Burrell: Right.
Tavis: What’d you mean by that?
Burrell: What I meant by that is that Black people came to this country in a way totally unlike any other group of people – against our will and into servitude and enslavement. That is unique. We came into a thing called a democracy. That was unique at the time.
So that shaped how we deal with life, that shaped how we – I originally came up with that line as it relates to how we purchase products, why we buy the things we do, why we buy the way that we do.
We basically spend an inordinate amount of money on stuff. We’re constantly buying things. We’re at the top of that list in terms of how we spend our money, on basically items that depreciate instead of appreciate.
Well, look at it this way – we basically lost all status. We came to a country that is status-oriented, based on materialism. So how do we regain our status?
Tavis: Buy stuff.
Burrell: We’re buying stuff, and we’re buying our way down to the bottom of these other lists because we are not saving, investing, coming together, pooling resources. We’re giving all our money away, and we have been basically conditioned to do that and to be applauded for doing that. The more bling, the more prestige it brings to us.
Tavis: I’ve said many times, and you and I agree on this, that too many of us buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress folk we don’t even like.
Burrell: Right.
Tavis: Yeah.
Burrell: Right.
Tavis: We do it all the time, but I digress on that point.
Burrell: But that’s really to the point.
Tavis: I want to stay with this media thing, though, because you make the case very clearly in the book that it is through marketing primarily that this brainwashing has taken hold. So for those persons watching who don’t want to deal with that 400-year narrative about the brainwashing, let’s make it more contemporary.
Talk to me about how the media, about how marketing, about how advertising has led to this brainwashing.
Burrell: It is now on automatic. Out of the movies that were nominated for the Academy Award, I’ll bet you can go through half of them and find a whole slew of cues, visual and verbal cues that reinforce the idea of Black inferiority, white supremacy.
Which one do you want to take? You want to take “The Blind Side?” Here we have a situation where the Black family throws the kid away, the Black coach and his wife let him sleep on the couch for a couple of days, and then in comes this wonderful white family who embraces this big, oafish kind of kid who doesn’t know anything, big gentle giant, takes him in.
He is barely literate; he is barely able to function. Then we see him going into his neighborhood with this woman who is his new mother and it’s a menacing place, and she’s going to get out of the car and he grabs her – “Don’t get out.” (Laughter) These are some dangerous people out there. Then you see the most menacing group of Black guys that you can imagine, and you see in their eyes a thuggishness and you see these potential rapists.
There is no positive Black family image portrayed whatsoever, but you have this sharp contrast between good and bad and white and black. I’m not saying that white families haven’t adopted Black kids, but you know something? Black families have adopted Black kids, and you have to ask yourself the question, would that be a movie, would that movie have been produced if I came to you with a story –
Tavis: About a Black family adopting a Black kid.
Burrell: – about a Black family –
Tavis: It ain’t no movie in Hollywood.
Burrell: Right, right.
Tavis: What about “Precious?”
Burrell: “Precious” is loaded. It’s one thing to talk about Black stereotypes. The idea that you’ve got a father who is having sex with his three-year-old – is that a stereotype? I think that’s a – I think that’s beyond a stereotype. What “Precious” does is it takes stereotypes and it piles on and exaggerates even those things that are considered to be serious.
Tavis: So stereotypes on steroids.
Burrell: Stereotypes on – yeah, absolutely, on steroids. I’ve heard a lot of stereotypes before, but the idea of a mother calling her daughter up to help her sexually? I’ve never heard of that one.
Tavis: And she’s illiterate, and she has HIV/AIDS, and she’s unemployed, and she’s – yeah.
Burrell: Bam, bam, bam, bam. Here’s another one – how about using stereotypes? How about the stereotype of the strong matriarch? Precious has a grandmother who doesn’t even show up on camera fully formed. She’s a kind of a specter in the background. She’s a meek, mild, cowering kind of figure. In all the stereotypes that I know of of the Black grandmother, she’s out there, “Wait a minute, you’re not going to do that to my grandchild.”
Look at the colorism. Everything that we see bad is black. The characters who come in to save the day, just like in “Blind Side -” that’s an interesting parallel, what they have in common – everybody who comes into the picture to help out are either half-white or all-white.
It’s a very interesting kind – and all of the pathologies that anybody ever heard of – incest, brutality, child abuse, spiking the baby like a wide receiver making a touchdown – nothing redeeming about it.
Tavis: How do you respond to people who say that in this instance, and there are other instances; you talk about this in the book, I’m not trying to throw people under the bus. This is your book, what you talk about. But how do you respond to Hollywood or those watching right now who say, “But Tyler Perry makes these movies.” Oprah and Tyler were behind “Precious.” It was directed by a Black man, it was written by a Black man.
Tom Burrell, get out of here with that nonsense, trying to blame us for seeing stuff on camera, seeing stuff on film, on the screen. We’re just watching this thing. We didn’t make this; y’all made this.
Burrell: It’s perfect brainwashing. The pattern about brainwashing, if it’s brainwashing you can’t get around it. The brain, washed, becomes part of the brainwashing team, and then it becomes unconscious that we carry that whole thing out.
The interesting thing about all the people who seemingly are in charge of this movie and behind the movie, they all say that they are victims of molestation. That may be the case, and I take their word at it, but to put that on us as a race I think is unfair and it is not an indication of what really happens in our community.
Tavis: Is there any thing redemptive, anything socially redemptive at all that’s happening in regard to pushing back on the brainwashing, as it were?
Burrell: Well, yeah, the idea that it’s being discussed. I think for those people who have experienced the molestation, I’ve been hearing that it’s good for them because they are able to talk about it and come out with this whole horror.
Tavis: Kind of therapeutic.
Burrell: Yeah, yeah. But I think that that is really coming into a lot of damage to get a little good. So it is basically, in my view – this is just my view – it does more damage than good.
In our book we have this graphic – by the way, the book is really meant to be used. It’s not just meant to be read. It’s a reference book, it’s a how-to book. We have this grid that basically says we need to look at everything that speaks to Black people in terms of images and words and make a judgment as to whether these images and these words move us back or move us forward and then decide how we’re going to speak to that.
I look at “Precious” and I look at it as objectively as I can and say, “I believe that it moves us back instead of forward.”
Tavis: Are the Obamas – and I mean the entire family; the president, first lady, two beautiful daughters – are they the best antidote against brainwashing today?
Burrell: They are very powerful antidotes against brainwashing today. We have some evidence that the image of the president and the first family is already having some positive effects, particularly on young Black men.
Here we have a guy in the White House who is not only Black but has an air of Blackness about him. He’s got that little thing in his walk and that little thing in his talk that make these kids relate to him.
Tavis: Harry Reid said he has it when he wants to have it.
Burrell: Right. Well, yeah.
Tavis: And doesn’t when he don’t. We’ll come back to Harry Reid in a second. (Laughter)
Burrell: Well, and I think that’s probably true. I think that’s probably true.
Tavis: Okay, go ahead.
Burrell: That’s another story. But here is the point – the point is that even the president of the United States, the Black president of the United States cannot compete with this constant bombardment of negative images that we get in every form of media from the beginning of the day to the beginning of the next day without end, in every form of media there is.
Tavis: We mentioned Harry Reid, we were laughing a moment ago because I was making the point that for those who recall Harry Reid’s comments, his comment was that he has it when he needs to have it and throws it away when he doesn’t need to have it.
Burrell: Right.
Tavis: But we all recall those controversial comments by Harry Reid. In the context of “Brainwashed,” what’d you make of Harry Reid’s comments?
Burrell: Well, what I made of Harry Reid’s comments, first of all, I think that what he said is true. I believe that the president is acceptable to the broader population because of what Harry Reid described as he’s able to talk their language and we know that there is shadeism.
The fact of the matter is that he’s closer to the broader population than a person who is not mixed race. So that part of it is true. Now, the fact that he said it basically shows a lack of sensitivity on his part.
Tavis: Does it show that Harry Reid’s been brainwashed, too, to believe that?
Burrell: Well, of course it shows, but it shows that the public overall has been brainwashed to believe it and what Harry Reid is doing basically is reporting, rather ineptly, what other people think. So it was certainly an inappropriate thing to say, but I hate to find myself agreeing with a guy like George Will. (Laughter) But I just couldn’t find anything to say about his being – oh, boy, you’re wrong about that. No, there is colorism, there is shadeism, and there is a kind of reaction – it’s less scary when a person doesn’t talk Black.
Tavis: I wonder if you are hopeful in your lifetime, given that we at least have the Obama family, to your point, as one example, one antidote against this – are you hopeful that in your lifetime that we’re going to see any progress on this at all?
Burrell: I am hopeful that we’ll not only see progress, I am hopeful that we’re going to resolve the issue. I think that this book is going to help along those lines. Here’s what I really felt strongly about, is that we cannot write this book, this book can’t be done if we can’t talk about solutions.
Talking about the problem without solutions only frustrates people. We have a solution. We have a solution in a library card. If you don’t have a computer, if you have a library card, you can start working on reshaping negative images into positive images, because if you can get to a computer you have in a computer a movie studio, you have in a computer a recording studio, and we can start to reshape our images.
With the creativity that we have, that we had to have just to survive, we can use that creativity. Now, we don’t have to wait on networks, we can do it ourselves.
Tavis: And that doesn’t even start, doesn’t even include the obvious, which is the information that one can glean from being online. So you start educating yourself about life and money.
Burrell: Absolutely. We have got to get into that computer and start working on resolving this issue, and we also have to be about the business of getting past institutional objectives, and what we want to do is put ourselves out of business, Tavis.
We don’t need a race business. We need to get to the core of the issue. The core of the issue has to do with how we feel about ourselves, not how other people feel about us. It’s how we feel about us that we’ve got to deal with.
Tavis: That’s the ultimate – that is the ultimate, is how we feel about ourselves. I’m glad that Tom Burrell got to his computer and typed this one out. It’s called “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.” You won’t regret reading, I promise you that. Tom, good to have you on the program.

Burrell: Great. Great being here, Tavis.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm