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Revolutionizing the African-American image

August 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Conversation, Feature

As the founder and former chief executive officer of Burrell Communications, Advertising Hall of Fame inductee Tom Burrell is widely credited with revolutionizing the image of African-Americans on television and changing the face of marketing in America.

His award-winning work not only promotes positive and realistic images of blacks, but also lays the groundwork for corporate acknowledgment of the purchasing power of the black community.

In 2007, Burrell founded The Resolution Project (, a nonprofit organization that promotes intra-racial dialogue and community-based new media campaigns intended, in his words, “to eradicate negative images and replace them with a bombardment of positive words and images.” He joined Black Image to talk about his new book, “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.” 

What is the message in your new book, “Brainwashed”?

It’s all about how America was sold a bill of goods starting at the beginning of this country. That bill of goods was a big lie. The myth of black inferiority that happened back then is the real quandary: How you reconcile the idea of the lie with the new form of government called  democracy? Hence, how do you reconcile the concept of a democracy with the reality of slavery? You can’t. It is a contradiction. So, somebody came up with the great idea back in the day that was great for the masses, but not for black people. That idea was to say that black people are not totally human, not totally men. So, they could say, “All men are created equal.” And that was the beginning of the making of the myth. The greatest advertising and marketing campaign in history was created — the marketing of black inferiority. We were basically presented in a very negative light in the media. Something less than human, and it ran rampant in all media over a period of 300 years — starting with “the good book,” textbooks, and philosophy journals. The propaganda that sold the image of black people as less then human was a brainwashing. The brainwashing was so effective that it convinced (black people) to become a part of the brainwashing team and that is what my book is all about.

Are we aware of the fact that we are brainwashed?

That is what my book examines: the historical roots of the brainwashing. If you don’t know where it came from, you can be very misguided. You can buy into the myth of black inferiority. Learn the origin of such questions as, “Why don’t black fathers take care of their children?” We examine the unique way we came here, which has contributed to this peculiar hole we find ourselves in today.  

How do we become un-brainwashed?

Something I had to do with this book is to present some solutions to our problems. So many books just address the problems, but not the solutions to the problems. My book connects the dots from the present to the past and maps out a plan for the future.

So, the ills that plague the black community are largely because of the media?

One of the things I point out in my book is that people don’t recognize that images and words are powerful. It is the most powerful means of communication that there is. The greatest shaper of attitudes and behavior are images and words. We always talk about teachers, parents and ministers who have the responsibility to correct the wrongs of our community. I have been in the advertising business for 45 years, and nothing is more powerful than the media and propaganda. We spend so little time talking about it while we struggle to get ahead. We stay at the bottom of all of the good lists and at the top of all of the bad lists. And we don’t ask ourselves, “Why do we stay there?” We talk about the same issues, but we don’t talk about the main issue. The issue of how we really feel about ourselves, and what we do as a result of how we feel about ourselves. If we can fix and heal the damage that has been done to our self-esteem all these years, then we can start making some positive changes.

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