Inspiring People

Marketing Communications Pioneer and Author, Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

Marketing communications pioneer, founder and former CEO of Burrell Communications, and Advertising Hall of Fame inductee, Tom Burrell is credited with revolutionizing the image of African Americans in television and changing the face of American advertising. During his tenure as a top advertising executive, he coined the now-famous phrase, "Black people are not dark-skinned white people." His award-winning work promoted positive and realistic images of Blacks and acknowledged the purchasing power of the African American community. In 2007, Burrell founded the Resolution Project,, a nonprofit organization that promotes intra-racial dialogue and community-based new media "stop the brainwash" campaigns. He lives in Chicago's South Loop area. Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority is his first book.

Tom Burrell is someone who tells it like it is and his new book Brainwashed is America's wake up call. Brainwashed provides a valuable opportunity for us to deal constructively with one of our ugly and unfortunate legacies; to finally talk about the elephant in the room in a way that could finally make a difference...

DR: Tell me about Brainwashed.

TB: America has been sold a bill of goods.

The myth of Black inferiority is a lie that was created in order to justify the existence of this nation. This nation had to embrace slavery in order to have a democracy. Now those are two contradictory terms, "slavery" and "democracy". If indeed democracy is based on the idea that "All men are created equal" how then do you justify this contradiction? Well, somebody had the bright idea, a good marketing guy, to sell the idea that "Black people are sub-human. That way we can carry out our plan to have this democracy based on freedom, justice and the idea that "all men are created equal" and still have slaves.

Having said that, here comes the big challenge:

It's easy to say it but now you have to prove it and reinforce it and make the myth a reality -

and thus was born the greatest marketing communications scam of our history:

The selling of Black inferiority

It's hard for people to understand me when I say that slavery was not our problem. Our problem was the rationalization and the justification of the rightness of slavery that created the problem.

Slavery ended in 1808 in England and it was basically over at that time. I mean certainly there was racism and discrimination but slavery was over. In America when slavery was over it was not over because what was still there was the propaganda and all of the signs of the campaign. That all continued.

The thing about propaganda is that all you have to do is get it started and once you get it started, the Brainwashed become the brainwashers. Once they become the Brainwashed become Brainwashed they will become a member of your team. In other words, the victim becomes the perpetrator. And by that happening, through the internalization, the myth becomes the reality. If you are told that you are vicious and violent and if you are continually presented with pictures of yourself as vicious and violent and if you are treated as vicious and violent, guess what? You become vicious and violent.

It is reinforced today in the same way that it was reinforced 300 or 400 years ago. The cover of Vogue Magazine, for instance...

DR: You are talking about the Lebron James cover?

TB: You can just take a King Kong poster and super impose it on that cover. And isn't it interesting that another one of our great athletes, one of our superheroes...

DR: Tiger Woods...

TB: ...after his transgression with the ultimate sin - conquering a string of White women - he goes from being this mix blended figure to becoming a Black, thug, slut on the cover of Vanity Fair overnight. He becomes Black overnight; a prison yard thug.

This is just evidence of the propaganda.

From the time our children wake up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night, they are bombarded with cues and words and signals that tell them that they are "less than" and "inferior to" and "not as good as". That message is on television, played on the radio in their music and it is fueled by the power structure but we carry it out.

There is a switch that took place. There is a point at which the perpetrators did not have to work anymore. There was a point at which the Ku Klux Klan and Thomas Jefferson and The White Citizens Council, and Calhoun and Andrew Jackson and people who were killing Black people, there was a point at which the idea took hold and they didn't have to do anything but pepper it every once in awhile through media ownership and allowing the "Black on Black" propaganda to thrive.

DR: Where do you suggest that switch point was?

TB: It depends on which pathology you are talking about.

DR: A lot of people might listen to what you are saying and characterize you as paranoid or "out there"...

TB: All you have to do is print the numbers out. The numbers support me.

DR: You are somebody who has credibility when it comes to talking about propaganda and effective marketing. That is your world. So to circle back to my question, where do you say those switch points were where the victims became the perpetrators?

TB: Let's just take some landmark milestones:

  • Desegregation
  • The invention of television

First there was television. Then there was desegregation. Desegregation is what dismantled the Black community because it took away the glue. "They" came in and said

"You people with substance and education and money, it's a new day! You guys can leave".

And we didn't even miss a beat. And when we left, we left the community without any glue; no adhesive. That left the community ripe for what was to come next:


There was a wonderful development, a wonderful experiment, a wonderful discovery called "Crack".

DR: Well that is part of what I was getting at earlier. Was one of the turning points in your view drugs?

TB: Keep in mind that we had gang problems in the '60s not just the '80s but we were ready for establishment to take over the inner cities at that point because we didn't have a Black middle class to shore it up.

There was a ramp up. In the beginning Black people couldn't kill each other...

DR: Because?

TB: Because if you did you were destroying property that belonged to White people. Slaves were not cheap. They cost thousands and thousands of dollars. A slave would dare not kill another slave unless instructed to do so by a slave owner. That is the way it happened - we were taught to kill each other during slavery. That was part of the brainwashing process. People were forced to burn their own family members or disembowel their own kin. That was part of the humiliation. They were forced to watch as their loved ones were being crucified, murdered and buried. They were forced to do all kinds of vile and demeaning things.

DR: That is the kind of thing that gets perpetuated because this is a topic that is not discussed freely so we never get to the source or the root cause of some of these major issues. This all didn't just happen...

TB: We do not have an appetite for talking about this because of the shame and the guilt on both sides. We don't talk about it and, because we don't talk about it we can't resolve it.

DR: What is the effect of that?

TB: James Baldwin talked about it as "Two people having a discussion with a dead body under the table". If we both agree not to talk about this dead body under the table - the stench and the fact that our feet keep bumping up against it - pretty soon we just agree that it's just part of the carpet and the result of that is that pretty soon we can't talk about anything anymore.

So, that is where we are now.

You see these discussions taking place during Black History Month about race?

DR: Yeah, if you can call them that.

TB: Talking about...


In BRAINWASHED: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority (SmileyBooks; February 15, 2010; Trade Paperback Original; $15.95), Tom Burrell, founder and former CEO of Burrell Communications and Advertising Hall of Fame inductee, dares to probe the roots of our collective mind control. Burrell identifies what he calls "the most successful propaganda campaign of all time—the masterful marketing of the myth of Black Inferiority."

Today, all Americans—Black and white—are deluged with a tsunami of words and images that promote the myth of Black inferiority. The seeds of this brilliant propaganda campaign were sown and skillfully fertilized during America's lucrative slave trade. But in contemporary society, African Americans have become blind to the real roots of their own self-destructive behavior.

But Blacks aren't the only ones blinded by the brainwash, says Burrell. When Harry Reid recently asserted Barack Obama's political attractiveness lay in his lack of "Negro dialect" and light skin, he was vocalizing a belief many whites and Blacks silently, unconsciously accept: traits identified as "too Black" are viewed as signs of inferiority.

Burrell, who coined the phrase "Black people are not dark-skinned white people," draws on his unique experience of over four decades in the ad industry to explore the mass- media driven Black Inferiority/White Superiority brainwashing campaign from a broad and compelling historical perspective.

BRAINWASHED examines how every strand in the fabric of Black American life has been tainted by brainwashing—from family survival, entertainment, and sexuality, to health, education, and leadership. In each chapter, Burrell skillfully connects the dots between the historical roots and their contemporary manifestations—the dynamic forces that perpetuate the myth of Black inferiority.

Click here to learn more and buy Brainwashed.

DR: Nothing!

TB: Nothing. "Ba ba pa do da". It's not even decent jazz. It's not even a decent riff!

DR: Yeah. When they assemble these "experts" on TV for panel discussions for...

TB: For what?! It's a distant dance. You know you're dancing with each other and you're on different sides of the room.

DR: And then there is Martin Luther King, Jr. who has been reduced to a pacifier or a substitute for real honest discourse.

TB: Right. Yeah. Right...

DR: You use examples in pop culture to underscore the myth being perpetuated. How do you feel about a movie like Precious which has just been nominated for several Oscar Awards?

TB: A wonderful movie for reinforcing the ideas that Black people have about themselves and their helplessness...

DR: Even though it is not glorifying that condition?

TB: Yes, even though it is not glorifying the condition.

It is a wonderful movie for White people who basically are anti-Black, who basically think Black people are inferior. It's a wonderful movie for White people of good will that say that Black people are wonderful but pathetic people who need our help - that's basically the Hollywood community who on the other side of the camera still fail to bring White people into positions of real responsibility...

You take every stereotype that has ever been created about Black people and then you throw in a few that don't even exist and then you take out a few that do exist that are constructive. I mean, I've heard about child abuse. I know about the fact that it happens in families, but let's take that fact and ramp it up a little bit. Rather than having it be an uncle or boyfriend of the aunt, let's make the abuser the father. How is that? Well let's see. Let's ramp it up some more. How about a father who does it openly and in front of the mother? Hmmm...let's ramp that up even more. Very often the mother is aware of the abuse but is in denial. Well let's just take that out of the equation and let's just put them all in the same room. Wait a minute. Let's not stop there. Why don't we make her a sexual predator too?

DR: Well, that was just the worst...

TB: But wait. You know that stereotype about Black mothers having sex with their daughters?

DR: No?

TB: Where did that one come from? Why don't we just stick that one in there?

DR: That was very disturbing. So all of a sudden that will become who we are?

TB: Ahhhh...

So we're taking this little piece here about the child abuse thing and we'll just blow it up!

DR: Aha! So now we've got this whole new kind of vicious, violent behavior...

TB: Yeeeaaahhh...

So the father is having sex with the baby and the mother at the same time. The mother is jealous of the baby...

DR: Wasn't that just horrific?

TB: Well hey! If we're gonna to do it...

DR: Let's really do it?

TB: Let's just do this thing! Let's give them some AIDS. Not only that but let's make the father a dope fiend! And, guess what!? He's doing all of this stuff and he's not even there! He's an absentee father doin' all this stuff! He's not even in the damn movie!

But let's flip the switch. What happened to that strong matriarchal figure that people complain about? Did you see the shot of the grandmother? She's a figure cowering in the corner while all of this stuff is going on. Hey, let's get this strong matriarchal figure out of the way. She's getting in the way of what we are trying to do here. And the Monique figure doesn't work. She doesn't have a job. She just sits there and eats this obscene food. But let's also have her throwing televisions...Let's not just make her a neglectful mother and grandmother, let's make her vicious:

"Oh, let me see my grandbaby".


She's spikin' babies.


Like the wide receiver of the New Orleans Saints. Touchdown! Bam!

And then let's just finish it off by having her throw a television at them.

And guess what? They are all dark. And guess what else? Who are all of these wonderful people who come in to save the day? They are all at least half White.

DR: The teacher, the social worker, the male nurse...

TB: Wonderful people! And how do you know they are wonderful? Because they are all light skinned.

DR: And the very light skinned boyfriend in her fantasy...she is conditioned to want that?

TB: She is conditioned...

DR: On the flip side of this -

My girlfriend and I were watching the coverage of President Obama when he went over to meet with Republican Congressman in "their house". It was not surprising to us that he effortlessly out-intelligence all of them. The press has been eating it up as though this is just such a remarkable occurrence. We were acknowledging to one another that

"This is how we roll". This is not an extraordinary event but "a day in the life of being Black".

It's just that that side of being Black is not portrayed on TV.

TB: You are not going to convince people that this is not an aberration. This is the acceptable exception. This is the half-White one until he does something wrong and then he'll be on the cover of some magazine with a skull cap on, stripped down to the waist and darkened a little bit to make that point.

DR: What do you say to those who would say that you are being a little sensitive and perhaps reaching a little bit?

TB: I would say this:

"What you have been thinking and what you have been believing about what the problem is isn't working? What is your solution? How is that working? I have got some numbers here to show how over the last forty years there has been no significant change. Where are your numbers? Until these numbers start to change I am convinced. I've got an idea. What's your idea? I've got an idea and it's not illogical. Do you accept that images and words are important? If you don't, let me show you how images and words have shaped our destiny; the human destiny.

Images have started wars and movements...Birth of a Nation. That was how the Ku Klux Klan was born. One movie. That was it. Images work.

DR: What would you say about accusations that you are being paranoid about your assertion that there is an intentional effort to create, for instance, Tiger Woods now as a Black thug and a slut?

TB: I don't "think", but that's the point.

Whether it's conscious, pre-conscious, sub-conscious or unconscious, it is institutionalized to the point where it just happens. It ranges from being very intentional to inadvertent and insensitive. And, it doesn't matter whether the people casting or writing Precious were sitting down and thinking "I am going to do this so that I can really do some damage" or whether they were just being totally insensitive. You have to conclude that it was at least insensitive.

DR: What has the reception for Brainwashed been like? Are people willing to have this conversation?

TB: Well, I have to tell you that I am a little bit anxious about the fact that I have only been getting a positive response. I want to hear the negative and I want to hear the basis for the negative responses. I want to have a discussion with those people who have an issue with my premise or my conclusion...

DR: Acknowledge the dead man under the table?

TB: We have to join the issue, as they say in legal terms.

Here's the thing, there are two kinds of people: people who are part of the problem and people who are part of the solution. Either you act on my premise or you come up with an alternate act that also has the same kind of logistical cause and effect that mine has. I don't want to hear anything about "Let's just keep doing what we've been doing". Everybody knows that's the definition of insanity.

DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

TB: I'd like to see a realization of the power of images for good or ill. If you choose to keep putting out negative images, you can't hide behind some kind of mask of "I'm doing this for any cause other than trying to line my pockets".

What Id like to see happen is a critical enough mass, getting together, understanding the power of images and words, to start pushing back negative images and pushing forward positive images.

We have lots of evidence that positive images will create positive results. I want that to be in effect as a result of this book. The only thing that really matters to me is to see those numbers change. I want to see those numbers change to the point that "acting Black" is tantamount to "being smart".

Thanks Tom!
What Do Senator Harry Reid, Chris Brown, Tiger Woods, and Precious Have In Common? The Black Inferiority Brainwash

New York, NY ( -- Recently there has been a collage of disturbing images featuring black Americans: Chris Brown's abuse of his ex-girlfriend Rihanna; pro golfer Tiger Woods' serial adultery with several white women; 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert's senseless killing by fellow teens in broad daylight; the controversial black pathology on display in the film, Precious. While these images are disturbing, they are not surprising, according to advertising visionary Tom Burrell, author of the groundbreaking BRAINWASHED: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority (SmileyBooks; February 1, 2010; Trade Paperback Original; $15.95).

Burrell, a 45-year veteran of the advertising industry and an inductee of the Advertising Hall of Fame, explains that such images are too often the rule rather than the exception, and their genesis can be traced back 400 years to the days of slavery in America when the Black Inferiority/White Superiority brainwashing campaign began.

Burrell calls the marketing of the myth of Black Inferiority to justify slavery within a democracy "one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of all time." In BRAINWASHED he shows how the torturous enslavement and indoctrination of a people resulted in the powerful, all-pervasive, mass-media driven brainwashing that impacts African American lives even today. The BI brainwashing campaign may be more subtle than in the past, given that a black First Family occupies the White House, but nonetheless, it exists.

In a volume both instructive and enlightening, Burrell draws on his unique experience of over four decades in the ad industry, where he coined the memorable phrase, "Black people are not dark-skinned white people." To complement the narrative's broad historical perspective, the book boasts a riveting 8-page color insert, a dramatic visual history of Black Inferiority propaganda and how blacks “pushed back” against the brainwash. It “reminds us of how far we've come and how far we've yet to go,” says Burrell.

BRAINWASHED examines how the very fabric of black American life has been undermined by brainwashing—from family issues and finances to emotional and spiritual concerns, entertainment, health, and education. In each chapter, Burrell presents the contemporary manifestation of an issue that perpetuates Black Inferiority, examines the historical roots, builds a bridge to the present, and offers positive propaganda solutions.

More than a book, BRAINWASHED is a movement that offers people engagement and empowerment. Burrell explains that the most potent resource in the anti-brainwash initiative is media: audio or visual, via television, radio, film, music videos, billboards, print, the Internet, or cell phones—everything that influences our minds.

To recruit "evangelists for positive propaganda," Burrell has established The Resolution Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting community-based new media campaigns. One of The Resolution Project's first activities will be to sponsor the 1st Annual “Flip the Script…Stop the Brainwash” campaign. This worldwide competition will honor the best positive propaganda campaigns in video, art, creative writing, poetry, music, and other media based on a theme inspired by BRAINWASHED. For more information, go to

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