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Edward Boyd

Former National Urban League exec, Edward Boyd, helped break corporate America's color barrier and transform U.S. business. During the cola wars of the '40s, Pepsi tried to gain advantage over Coke by hiring Boyd to lead an all-African American sales team. For her book, The Real Pepsi Challenge, Stephanie Capparell talked to Boyd and other surviving members of the 12-person team. A journalist for more than 20 years, Capparell is an editor for the Wall Street Journal's Marketplace page.

Edward Boyd

Edward Boyd

Tavis: Long before the idea of diversity became a mantra for corporate America, there was a little-known group of African Americans who became part of a unique marketing team at Pepsi back in the late 1940s. The leader of that team was a guy named Edward Boyd, and the work that he and his colleagues did nearly 60 years ago would forever change how American companies dealt and deal with African American consumers.

Stephanie Capparell is an editor with "The Wall Street Journal" and the author of the new book "The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business." Ms. Capparell, nice to have you here.

Stephanie Capparell: Thank you.

Tavis: And Mr. Boyd, what an honor to meet you, sire.

Edward Boyd: Thank you. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start with a story that is poignant, for lack of a better word, and very telling, that is told by Stephanie near the very beginning of the book. She tells the story of a meeting with the CEO - a meeting that you were in - with the CEO of Pepsi, who said to you in a room full of White executives that "We have got to change the image of Pepsi as a nigger drink."

"We gotta change the image of Pepsi as a nigger drink." Take me back to that meeting and tell me what caused him to say that, and how you responded when that was said to you in a room full of White executives at Pepsi.

Boyd: Well, it was said by the president of Pepsi-Cola. The head, Walter Mack, was a wonderful man, but he had a room - it was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in the grand ballroom. Pepsi had gone through difficult times, as had the soft drink industry. That year was a good year, I think generally speaking. Pepsi had been - in those days, there was a jingle which advertised Pepsi-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola was presented in a big bottle.

The jingle went, twice as much for a nickel too, Pepsi-Cola's the drink for you. He was trying to - the fact that it was in a big bottle connoted that it was for poor people, largely. The association being with poor people, people who had to stretch their dollars. Black people, African American people, obviously were associated with the poorer class of people.

The point that he was making was that we have to disassociate the product from that image. We have to (unintelligible) class, we have to produce a classier image of the product. And so he unfortunately used that term that he said, in fact, "We don't want it to become known as a nigger drink."

Tavis: What did you do when those words came out of his mouth?

Boyd: Well, I was totally shocked, coming from a man - I knew the man, I'd come to know the man. I knew it was not his sentiments, as opposed to many of his bottlers, who were from the South. At that time, the segregated, discriminating South. I knew that didn’t represent his, but he was appealing.

Tavis: He was playing to the southern bottlers.

Boyd: And I was so shocked - I had one of my team members sitting beside me, which was unusual because all of our team was instructed never to sit together. (unintelligible) to sit next to one of the bottlers, hopefully one of the southern bottlers, to get them accustomed to being next to Negroes. And I was totally shocked. I was amazed. And I knew immediately that I had to do something to show that I did not accept this.

That I was appalled by it. In fact, insulted by it. And so I told the (word?) that was next to me, who was on my team, please don't follow me, I have to leave. And I got up and walked across the aisle to - crossed in front of people to the aisle, to the next aisle, and walked out of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel grand ballroom.

Tavis: So you did two things. Before I go to Stephanie here, one, you protected your team and said to them, "I don't want you to get caught in the trouble I'm about to get in."

Boyd: That's right.

Tavis: "So you stay right here." But number two, you deliberately took the long way out of that room, so everybody could see you walking out.

Boyd: I didn’t deliberately take the long, long way out. It was a long way (laugh). Automatically. I was in that same ballroom to another affair the other night, just a couple of nights before coming here, and it was a benefit thing with a dinner, full of tables. And I could, in my mind's eye, relive that full of folding chairs and bottlers. Largely, many of them from the South. And I retraced that whole step.

Tavis: Please tell me, though, nobody called you a nigger the other night.

Boyd: Nobody.

Tavis: All right, that's good. All right, Stephanie. Let me get to you here.

Boyd: No, very frankly, we were giving money to…

Tavis: You were giving money away this time (laugh).

Boyd: It was a benefit.

Tavis: The Negroes in the room were giving money away, all right. How far we have come, 400 years after being here in America. Now we giving money away. That said, Stephanie, it's a wonderful text here. I wanted to start with that story right quick, 'cause I now want you to help me juxtapose, then, in that environment, what Mr. Boyd and this African American team did to change the way that businesses now appeal to and respect, for lack of a better word, Black consumers to the extent that they do.

Capparell: Yeah, he was talking about Walter Mack, who made that derogatory remark. But of course, they had to consider the source and they knew what his sentiments were. Walter Mack was one of the few corporate tycoons, or the few corporate businessmen at the time who realized that he had a market to pander to at all in the African Americans.

It was a big risk at the time. Other corporations, Heard, the National Urban League, the NAACP, asked the Black leadership, please recognize us as consumers. Hire us. Put stores in our communities. But very few wanted to heed the call, because they knew that there could be a huge backlash that would ultimately damage their business and not be worth the money that they were making.

Tavis: But how could Mr. Mack get on the one hand that here is an underserved market, here's a market that provides Pepsi growth potential, but at the same time appeal to the bottlers and say to them, "We gotta change this image that our product has with these Black folk." Juxtapose those two things for me.

Capparell: Yeah, it's hard to understand by today's point of view that he had to really do a juggling act all the time. And I really do think he was just pandering to the bottlers. That wasn’t really his sentiment, but he knew that's what they were thinking. And in a way, what he was saying was how successful Mr. Boyd's African American team had become.

They really, in some ways, were sowing the seeds of their own destruction in that they were so successful that the bottle of Pepsi was becoming more and more associated as an African American drink.

Tavis: Tell me then more about the story of what Mr. Boyd and his team did in such a groundbreaking way 60 years ago.

Capparell: What they did was to form this all-Black sales division. Some corporations had some local Black salesmen just trying to do meet-and-greets around their area, their region. But Mr. Boyd was given the opportunity to have a full staff, a budget for advertisement, and a whole national setting. They were all national salesmen, in which to sell their product. And also it wasn't a vice product, which was another important thing. It was a household product, Americans love colas, and this was a cola drink.

Tavis: Tell me more then about what the team did then, strategically, that we now take for granted in terms of outreach to minority communities today. They really did set the bar here.

Capparell: Well, remember that at the time in the 1940s, if anybody were to try to appeal to the Black consumer, it was with some generic ad. But Mr. Boyd's team was the one who said "We will appeal to this community using African Americans as models and in all the display ads."

Tavis: So it was what we call today target marketing.

Capparell: It's what we call…

Tavis: They were the original target marketers.

Capparell: That's right; they were the original niche marketers, the original target marketers. And also the ones who were some of the first out the door who were using African Americans, the South African Americans, not only as individuals going to any kind of group meeting, but also in the advertisements. And they had to think very carefully about what image they wanted to put in those ads.

Tavis: And nowadays, everybody does that. You can't turn on the TV anyway without people selling you a product with people who look like you. But they were the first team to do this back in the day.

Capparell: And not only - excuse me - and not only today are African Americans often used in advertising, of course, and representational, but now they find that they must do that if they're going to get the young consumer. It's just - people don't want to have a product that doesn’t look like an inclusion product.

Tavis: Mr. Boyd, the book tells some wonderful stories - well, they weren’t so wonderful, but tells some fascinating stories about how you and your team, as you moved around the country, particularly in the South, not unlike baseball players and anybody else who was Black who was traveling back in the day, you couldn’t stay at the Waldorf-Astoria.

You couldn’t stay in hotels down South. So even as you were working for a major company like Pepsi, as you all traveled to sell your product, you were staying in the homes of other Negroes.

Boyd: That's right. We had to look around and find places to live, places to eat in those days. Not only in the South, but places - I think I recall Omaha, Nebraska, for example, which was - one of our men was put out of a hotel in Omaha, Nebraska. And he had to find another place to live with a Negro family. He had to have help with - the Negroes who worked in the hotel found him a place to stay.

Tavis: When you look, Mr. Boyd, at - to the point that Stephanie and I were discussing a moment ago, when you look today at the mass market that we Negroes, we colored folk, we African Americans, now represent, when you look at TV and you look in magazines and you see how they come after us now to market everything to us to get that money, 'cause we will spend some money on consumer products, how does that make you feel these days? Knowing that you made that happen.

Boyd: I'm overwhelmed, often. I say to my children, who have no idea what we went through then, not one of them was on this Earth then. Or they came to be during that time, into being at that time. They're overwhelmed. Now I look at the television, and there was no television then. I look at television and immediately I see people advertising product. Luxury products to Black people.

Advertising luxury products. Not (unintelligible) luxury products, mediocre products. And all setting the tone, setting the tone. It's amazing to me that we've come a long way in relatively few years.

Tavis: Do I owe you a check for having the opportunity to have a TV show on PBS with underwriting?

Boyd: Down on your knees, boy (laugh).

Tavis: Let me close our conversation right quick, you have lived such a fascinating life. One of the things I found fascinating, you are in Hollywood, obviously. The first African American to win an Academy Award was a woman named Hattie McDaniel, who I'm told you were friends with and were supposed to escort the night she won the Academy Award to the program. What happened? Well, we know Hattie won. What happened to you?

Boyd: I was left standing. I was a very young person then. Hattie McDaniel, it was thought - I thought, even - I was too young.

Tavis: To escort her.

Boyd: To escort her to that affair, mm hmm. People would get the wrong impression. (Laugh)

Tavis: (Laugh) Although - and I’m laughing nowadays, 'cause if Halle Berry had asked me to escort her? Or Jennifer Hudson, or anybody else.

Boyd: Very different.

Tavis: I'm not too young. Or too old, for that matter. (Laugh) The book is called "The Real Pepsi Challenge." Stephanie Capparell, "The Wall Street Journal," and to Mr. Boyd's point, we would expect no less. A well-researched book from an editor at "The Wall Street Journal." Stephanie, nice to have you on the program; congratulations.

Capparell: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Mr. Boyd, an honor to meet you, sir.

Boyd: Thank you, dear. Thank you, my good man. We admire you.

Tavis: You're kind, thank you. I appreciate that.