Robert Vann, publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote in awe about the newly minted international sports icon Jesse Owens in 1936. Owens had just won four gold medals at that year’s Olympics, held in Berlin.
I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw him greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.
A sprinter from the Jim Crow South and student at a then-segregated Ohio State University, Owens experienced racially-integrated life for the first time while sailing to Europe and living abroad for the Olympics. In a span of a week during the Olympic games, he challenged and diminished many of the ethnic and racial myths perpetuated by Adolf Hitler, the “Grand Chancellor” referenced by Vann, by dominating the Berlin Olympics and undermining Hitler’s claims of national and racial supremacy.
Berlin, on the verge of World War II, was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere. Brown-shirted Storm Troopers goose-stepped while Adolf Hitler postured, harangued, threatened. A montage of evil was played over the chillingly familiar Nazi anthem: “Deutschland Uber Alles.” This was the background for the 1936 Olympics. When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth. 
Owens returned to America after the Olympics, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not acknowledge his feat and, in failing to do so, spawned an historic missed opportunity to shift a global narrative. What could have been had Owens’ treatment at home matched his achievements abroad? Had America amplified and marketed his four Olympic gold medals as symbols of psychological defeat over Germany’s prevailing ideology, perhaps a tyrannical belief system could have been thwarted before words turned to actions. In reality, Kristallnacht would take place two years following the 1936 Olympics. Owens would go on to say:
Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.
Because he was an African-American man, major corporations would not employ him as a pitch man. His amateur status was revoked by the NCAA, and he was reduced to running against horses for compensation. During Owens’ career, the country was pioneering large-scale advertising and public relations campaigns, but we failed to use his historical wins to our advantage.
We must ask ourselves why.
The Great Invention of the 20th Century
Owens’ story becomes a lesson in foreshadowing and an important parable. Advertising is one of the most powerful forces in shaping opinion and influencing policy, but it’s much harder to advertise when a company, brand, or sovereign nation isn’t itself in support of the cause in question.
Just five years after Owens silenced Hitler with his speed, American advertising agencies and their brand partners mastered cause marketing when they needed it most: World War II. America was at war abroad and grappling with a vulnerable economy at home. The economic engine of war involved a never before seen form of consumer marketing. Advertising was used to promote consumerism as a patriotic duty and brands were intertwined with government initiatives to both supply our military industrial complex and support the domestic economy. WWII-era brands and media agencies were aligned in a forceful showing that ideas could be used no differently than physical weaponry.
Throughout history, brands have grown stronger during periods of societal unrest, but only when the dissonance between their ideas and their actions were at a minimum. Civil rights wasn’t an American corporate or policy priority when Owens stood above a saluting Nazi, laying waste to the host country’s agenda. Contrast this to the collective efforts that won a war after escalation required our participation.
Film depictions of WWII feature the Lucky Strike brand of cigarettes as prominently as if the packages of rolled tobacco were leading characters of the story’s arc. Lucky Strike was omnipresent internationally throughout the war. But before the packs of branded cigarettes were included as C-rations for American soldiers, Edward Bernays, known as “the father of public relations”, helped the American subsidiary of the British tobacco company with its first mindshare coup. History’s first PR campaign was designed to convince American women to take up smoking. With the wind of suffrage at their backs and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution fueling a new wave of enfranchisement, women became a marketer’s new focal point. Lucky Strike cigarettes were their “torches of freedom.” Corporate America co-opted a social movement to further an economy. It would be the first time of many.
Modern marketing / PR was a byproduct of American war efforts in the Wilson administration (1917). Without Edward Bernays and his uncle (Freud), our consumer economy would not be the same.What he didn’t account for was our distributed media system. From 1928’s “Propaganda”: pic.twitter.com/9C7MIkYTAx
Alongside savvy marketing tactics, new brand innovations gained traction thanks to their contributions to wartime economies. Walt Disney manufactured morale for GIs shipped to different theaters of war. Jeeps were built for the American military. Mars invented M&Ms during the Spanish Civil War. Bausch & Lomb created Ray-Ban aviator anti-glare frames at the request of an Army Air Corps lieutenant general. Kotex began as a WWI-era gauze before being adapted by Army nurses to relieve menstrual bleeding. Super Glue was formulated in 1942 to serve as a manufacturing additive for military weapons. Silly Putty was designed after a war-production experiment to find an alternative for rubber went wrong. And Fanta was invented after a trade embargo prevented Coca-Cola syrup from being imported into Nazi Germany during World War II.
Overwhelmingly, at the dawn of the American advertising age, brands were a part of the war effort, liberation, and many cultural shifts of the times. There were exceptions, of course, just as there are exceptions today.
A Century Later, Lessons Forgotten
When outspoken Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong suggested in a September 2020 blog post that his company was better served by apathy, it was consistent with the culture within its walls.
Everyone is asking the question about how companies should engage in broader societal issues during these difficult times, while keeping their teams united and focused on the mission. Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts. I decided to share publicly how I’m addressing this in case it helps others navigate a path through these challenging times.
In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. 
An argument can be made that Armstrong’s assessment of the mood of his own workforce was accurate. Given Coinbase’s internal dynamics, running an advertisement akin to Beats By Dre’s “You Love Me” would not have worked for the same reason Cadillac could not have run an advertisement on behalf of Jesse Owens’ historic days abroad in 1936: The brand’s promotion of freedom would have clashed with Owens’ reality.
But the Coinbase culture eventually spoke for itself when a number of minority employees called out cultural schisms within company walls. In many ways, Armstrong was right: His company had no authority to take a public position on civil rights or equality.
Recent decisions at companies like Shopify, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Google to deplatform Donald Trump and his campaign can be interpreted as good-faith efforts to address current societal unrest, which has seen online words evolve into real-life actions. But like Coinbase, many of these companies are also laser-focused on their missions. The ideas of freedom, cooperation, and equality that are so critical to democracy are barely communicated or shared by today’s top advertisers.
I began to wonder why cause-based advertising wasn’t more prevalent given the issue’s thread throughout our society: economically, politically, socially, and otherwise.
During WWII-era advertising, nearly every major corporation was directly involved with the issue of its time. During that same era of advertising, Jim Crow bigotry and violence prevailed at home while racial and ethnic atrocities persisted abroad. Today, the corporations that are best positioned to promote the ideas that a threatened democracy requires to heal seem to be extraordinarily quiet right now, when it matters most. Beats by Dre’s ad in November 2020, Dove’s June 2020 ad placement, and the Nike’s September 2018 spot starring Colin Kaepernick are exceptions to the rule.
Overall, few corporations are prepared to champion the American ideals the way their predecessors did during past threats to American democracy. And perhaps it’s because, like Jesse Owens’ wins and the PR blitz that never was, there is a dissonance between the messages that today’s advertisers want to share and the reality of the dynamics within our own walls: our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our places of gather.
A timely lesson bound to reemerge
Eighty years ago, a war threatened democracy. And in the first month of 2021, democracy is again under siege. At the root of today’s unrest is the myth that an election was stolen – the same contest that saw historic levels of African-American voter turnout in swing states. The corollary is not a mistake. In the 1940s, corporations were proponents of the war’s resolution. They manufactured goods and used their associations with the war efforts to espouse American ideals. Where is today’s equivalent? One possible explanation is that media has never been more fractured and brands’ abilities to promote ideals has diminished over the decades. The explanation more difficult to hear is that perhaps we are more like the racially-segregated country that Owens came home to than we are willing to admit. Look no further than our own workspaces, virtual or otherwise.
Back then, we needed Cadillac to build engines for fighter planes. Today, we need brands to internally reflect the ideals of America that they so desperately want to espouse in marketing: from workplace equity to representation in leadership. This past week, many Americans have found that we are not what we thought we were. Today’s primary mission is to heal a deep-seated division. The resolution is found within the walls of our homes, our places of gather, the workforces that we build alongside, and our nation. Maybe and only then can the marketing and advertising of today reflect who we as Americans believe ourselves to be. As of now, there aren’t many examples at which to point.
The refrain seems to grow louder by the day from people who look like me. You love my culture but do you love me? Corporate America never answered that question for Owens and the many other pioneers of his day. In doing so, we missed an opportunity to beat down evil in its idea stage. Perhaps today’s corporations will see the need to be more dynamic in how they respond. First, with action, and then, through the amplification of messaging that has been proven to impact the hearts and minds of the people.
By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM