Respect and Respectability: Black Consumers and the Politics of Beer Marketing in the Postwar United States

Beer companies, along with manufacturers of cigarettes and spirits, were among the first white-owned national and multinational corporations to recognize the untapped potential of the Black consumer market in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, many beer companies remained reluctant to pursue this market, even as aggregate consumer demand for beer flagged during the 1950s. This paper explores the reasons for such reluctance among American brewers, the myriad ways they misread the Black consumer market, and the lessons Black consumers taught both market researchers and American brewers when they boycotted beer brands and talked back to beer companies as the subjects of marketing research. Drawing upon Ernest Dichter’s marketing research studies, this paper examines how Dichter attempted to bring Black consumers into focus and illuminate the hidden motivations and aspirations that informed their allegiance to certain brands of beer. Dichter’s limited dataset helped him to puncture the myth of a monolithic Black consumer market, but his interpretations of that data often pointed beer marketers in directions that did not fully square with the comments of Black consumers. Dichter’s Black respondents offered an important and potentially disruptive lesson: that the power to shape the meaning of brands lay as much in the hands of ordinary consumers as it did in the hands of corporate marketers. Black consumers cared deeply about their cultural representation in beer ads and the popular entertainments beer companies sponsored, but Blacks from different classes and generations varied in their responses to perceived assaults on Black dignity. Black consumers appeared more unified in demanding that brewers repay their brand loyalty by hiring more Blacks to occupy better-paying positions. Respectability mattered, but respect mattered more.