BOOTLEG FILES 517: “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” (1954 nontheatrical film sponsored by Johnson Publishing Co.).

LAST SEEN: The film is online at Black Heritage Network.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has not been made widely available in recent years.


For many people, the year 1954 is notable for the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck the first significant blow against the Jim Crow laws. But 1954 also saw another landmark in the struggle for civil rights: the release of “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market,” a film that openly challenged consumer goods manufacturers and suppliers to sell their products to African Americans. Sadly, that film has been out of circulation for so many years that most people today are unaware of its existence. And while it is not easy to locate “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” – I’ve been looking for it for years – it nonetheless deserves to be seen today.

“The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” was the brainchild of John H. Johnson, the founder and chairman of Johnson Publishing Co. Johnson was responsible for the monthly magazine Ebony and the weekly magazine Jet, and both publications were among the most influential African American media outlets of the post-World War II period.

Johnson was eager to expand the quantity and quality of advertisers in his magazines, but he ran into a major problem: corporate America and its Madison Avenue marketing experts were not eager to be seen embracing African American consumers. There was a major fear across the corporate world that any company that was seen as being too friendly to blacks would lose its white customers, especially down in Dixie. Also, many retailers (especially in the South) actively discouraged African Americans from shopping in their stores, especially the higher-scale outlets serving a well-heeled clientele.

“The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” took a rather shrewd approach to its subject. It avoided a confrontational style and did not use any language blatantly suggesting that racism played a role daily American life. (There is a very brief mention that certain “entertainment” was not open to blacks.) Nor did it call attention to the refusal by retailers to allow black patronage at their stores. Instead, the film placed a very heavy emphasis on the positive aspects of the buying power of 1954-era African Americans, and it carefully sought to present black consumers as being no different from their white counterparts.

“The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” also took the strategy of using white people to present the film’s thesis. Robert Trout, a highly prominent radio and television broadcaster, served as the film’s narrator. Trout presented the film as a substantial news report that demanded immediate attention. The film also brought in Sinclair Weeks, the Secretary of Commerce in the Eisenhower Administration, to further boost the film’s core argument. “Here is a buying power that cannot help but have a tremendous effect on our national economy,” said Weeks, noting that black wages increased more than the wages of “all other Americans.” While civil rights was not initially a primary focus in the Eisenhower Administration, the presence of Weeks gave the film an unmistakable seal of approval that the White House fully supported the ideas being presented here.

The film deftly swats aside some flimsy excuses for not marketing to African Americans, such as a claim that blacks have a preference for cheap and shoddy merchandise. Instead, the film goes through great lengths to show the opposite. One fascinating scene has an African American woman shopping for a crystal set. She carefully examines the crystal ware with mature expertise, clearly aware of the product’s worth. The film also stresses that the black consumer is highly intelligent, and it notes that the dramatic increase in “the enrollment at Negro colleges” – that last remark could be seen as praise for African American educational efforts and a double-edged reminder that many colleges and universities would not accept black students in 1954.

In 1954, the genuinely subversive aspect of “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” was the presentation of African Americans as equal participants in the consumer society. This is the very first film where white salespeople are seen assisting black customers, and also the first where white and black business professionals work together as equals – in this case, the white sales representative for the Quaker Oats cereal brand and the black owner of a neighborhood supermarket.

African Americans are seen embracing the protocol of white suburban society – purchasing automobiles, hosting dinner parties, buying golf clubs and shopping at upscale stores. A black child in the film plays in front of a television set with a cowboy hat and a toy gun, not unlike millions of white children who were equally enchanted by the TV Westerns of the day – never mind that there were no black cowboys on 1954 television. The black women in the film are elegantly attired, with designer clothing and exquisite hair and make-up, while the men are sharply dressed and show deep love for their families. Quite frankly, every black person in this film could have been a major movie star if 1954 Hollywood was a more progressive place.

The film offers a fascinating tip for white salesmen serving black stores: avoid all talk of politics and religion, and steer away from subjects that have any racial element. Even benign comments on the talents of black entertainers and athletes are considered to be bad form in this film – the fear was that comments designed to be praiseworthy might be construed as condescending. Instead, the film urges that black consumers be shown the same level of courtesy and dignity that any white consumer would receive.

If the film has a serious hiccup, it comes in a brief pitch for placing consumer advertising in Ebony and Jet. But that can be excused considering who was producing the film.

“The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” was not intended for theatrical release. Instead, it was sent for presentation to advertising executives and C-suite officers. Time Magazine covered the film’s premiere screening at the executive offices of the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. in Milwaukee. There is no public record on how many companies saw the film, but that fact that this film was released is nothing short of remarkable, given the racial environment 60 years ago.

I believe that Johnson Publishing still controls the copyright to “The Secret of Selling the Negro Market,” which may explain why the film is not widely seen. Over the past few years, it has been screened in a few cultural presentations relating to race relations. The full film can be seen online at a site called Black Heritage Network in a crisp print that beautifully shows its Kodachrome color cinematography.

It is unclear what impact the film ultimately had in breaking down barriers for racial equality, but it certainly helped to being the push to end the segregation of blacks as full participants in American society. As a piece of social history, the film is priceless.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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