With Mad Men back for its sixth season, one wonders if the progress that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — the fictional 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm depicted in the AMC TV show — made last season in hiring a black secretary will be reflected in the ads it creates. Um, probably not.
But with the benefit of history, we now know that within a few short years of the Mad Men era, black people — particularly entertainers and athletes — would prove to be effective pitch people in general-market ads. In a nod to that progress, here are some memorable commercials featuring notable figures from the 1970s to the present.
Geoffrey Holder for 7 Up
From 1971 through the mid-'80s, "the un-cola" relied on black exoticism in the form of Trinidadian actor-choreographer Holder. With his statuesque build, Caribbean dandy attire, rich basso voice and hearty laugh, he made 7 Up seem like an enchanting alternative to typical colas. Watch Holder explain the difference between cola nuts and "un-cola" nuts.
Rodney Allen Rippy for Jack in the Box
Rodney became the pitch baby for the fast-food chain starting in 1974 at age 4. Chomping Jumbo Jacks in national ads made the adorable tyke not only a household name — a first for a black child — but also a star: He snagged several guest spots on prime-time TV; had a Mattel doll made in his image; and his recording of "Make Life a Little Easier," originally a Jack in the Box jingle, at age 5 made him the youngest person ever on a Billboard chart. Watch Rodney rip into a Jumbo Jack.
Ella Fitzgerald for Memorex
With the tagline "Is it live or is it Memorex?" who better than the incomparable jazz singer to vouch for the stellar quality of the company's audiocassette tapes? The most memorable commercial of a series launched in the mid-'70s shows Fitzgerald scatting a high note that shatters a wine glass and her Memorex tape-recorded version doing exactly the same thing. Watch Fitzgerald fake out a listener in an "Is it live or is it Memorex?" stunt.
O.J. Simpson for Hertz
Long before the pro-football Hall of Famer was televised running from the Los Angeles Police Department in a white Bronco, Simpson could be seen running and hurdling through airports in Hertz commercials from 1976 to 1980. Young and handsome with a winning smile, Simpson charmed America and profited royally as the first African-American athlete with a major endorsement deal. Watch Simpson dash through an airport.
Bill Cosby for Jell-O
Granted, Cosby made television history in 1965 as the first black co-star on a prime-time drama (I Spy), but for generations of Americans, he is best-known for The Cosby Show — and for pushing pudding and Pudding Pops from 1974 to 1999 in Jell-O commercials, where his playful banter endeared him to kids and grownups alike. Watch Cosby talk pudding with two children and peddle Pudding Pops at a baseball game.
Muhammad Ali for d-Con
By the late 1970s, the Greatest had entered the commercial ring as the spokesman for roach killer d-Con. Applying his signature bravado to the fight against "things with six legs" was probably effective and definitely comical. Watch Ali show the world how to "whoop roaches."
Natalie Cole for Posner
Along with achieving acclaim for her pitch-perfect voice, Nat King Cole's progeny was also known for her stylish dos. Posner Cosmetics tapped her to endorse items from its hair-care line during the late '70s and early '80s. Watch Cole hawk Light Touch Conditioner.
'Mean Joe' Greene for Coca Cola
Aptly titled "Hey, Kid, Catch!" professional football player "Mean Joe" Greene's 1980 Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad was cited as one of the 10 most popular commercials of all time by TV Guide. So popular, in fact, that it was spoofed in a Downy fabric-softener commercial during Super Bowl 2012, and Greene reprised his iconic role. Watch Greene make television history for Coke — then watch his Downy redux.
Michael Jackson for Pepsi
Riding high on crossover appeal, the King of Pop partnered with Pepsi in 1983 for what ultimately became a game-changing deal that gave the star unprecedented creative input, tour sponsorship and a multimillion-dollar fee. Tragically, a pyrotechnic accident during the taping of a 1984 commercial resulted in burn injuries from which the singer never fully recovered. Watch Jackson — along with his brothers and future Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Alfonso Ribeiro — jam to a Pepsi-ized version of "Billie Jean."
Pearl Bailey for Duncan Hines
After establishing an illustrious career as a singer and actress on Broadway and in movies, Bailey became the spokeswoman for a series of Duncan Hines commercials during the mid-1980s, for which she delivered her signature good-natured sass. Watch Bailey make chocolate-chip cookies from a mix sound really tasty.
Iman for Revlon
Few, if any, national cosmetic ads showed black women before this 1988 lipstick commercial featuring the dark-skinned Somalian-born beauty in a speaking role with other popular white models of the day. Watch Iman make a great case for magenta lipstick.
Michael Jordan and Spike Lee for Nike
In a stroke of marketing genius, the sneaker giant solidified its street cred and made advertising history by pairing the young NBA star and rising film director for a series of commercials and print ads starting in 1988. Reprising his motormouth Mars Blackmon character from She's Gotta Have It, Lee spoke the line "Is it the shoes?" that became a new catchphrase. Of course, Jordan would continue to have a long and storied career with Nike — and other major brands as well. Watch Lee attempt to uncover the secret of Jordan's success.
M.C. Hammer for KFC
One man's fast-food-chain endorsement is another man's minstrel show: When the colorful rapper and his crew danced for the Colonel's latest fried delicacy in this '90s-era commercial, Hammer was hammered by many, including comedian Paul Mooney, for setting the race back. More recently, R&B queen Mary J. Blige came under similar fire when she sang about a fried chicken sandwich for Burger King. Watch Hammer dance between bites of popcorn chicken.
Dennis Haysbert for Allstate
Despite his many and varied film and TV roles — the most popular of which as a pre-Obama black president on the hit series 24 — since 2004 Haysbert has probably been best known for convincing us that we're in good hands with Allstate. "[He's] so compelling, and the warmth with which he delivers the scripts is so credible," a rep for Leo Burnett, the firm responsible for the commercials, said in 2004. Watch Haysbert warn of the dangers of the holiday season.