Edward Boyd, 92; Pepsi ad man broke color barriers

Times Staff Writer

The advertisement featured a smiling African American mother and her handsome, 7-year-old son. She holds a six-pack of Pepsi-Cola in her hand, lovingly. He reaches up for a bottle.

The message was simple, its poignancy understood only in the context of America's troubled history of race relations.

"We'd been caricatured and stereotyped," said Edward F. Boyd, who came up with the idea for the ad campaign. "The advertisement represented us as normal Americans."

It was 1947, and in a bold move, Pepsi-Cola hired Boyd and a team of highly educated African American salesmen to help the company capture the black dollar in its war with Coca-Cola.

A cornerstone of their effort was the ad campaign, which also profiled "Leaders in Their Fields" such as future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, stylishly dressed, well-to-do families and black university students.

By offering black America more respect and attention than any major corporation had before, Boyd and his team achieved their goal of driving up Pepsi's sales, pioneered what is now known as niche or target marketing, and helped break the color barrier in corporate America.

Boyd died Monday at Century City Doctors Hospital in Los Angeles from complications of a stroke he suffered in March. He was 92.

In January, Boyd's story received national attention with the release of the book "The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier in American Business," by Stephanie Capparell, an editor at the Wall Street Journal.

"Jackie Robinson may have made more headlines, but what Ed did -- integrating the managerial ranks of corporate America -- was equally groundbreaking," Donald M. Kendall, retired chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said in a statement.

If Boyd was the Jackie Robinson of corporate America, Walter S. Mack played the part of Branch Rickey, the Dodger general manager who signed Robinson and integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. Mack saw the so-called Negro market as a potential revenue builder for Pepsi and set out to capture it.

After World War II, Mack hired Boyd, who was then working at the National Urban League in New York City.

At a time when U.S. businesses mostly ignored black consumers -- or characterized them by using insulting images of mammies and pickaninnies in their advertisements -- the campaign directed by Boyd was historic.

Hired as an assistant sales manager, Boyd's responsibility was wide-ranging. He created the concept for the ad campaign, determined who and what would appear and decided to use photos of models for some ads. The boy reaching up for a bottle of Pepsi was a very young Ron Brown, who went on to become secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. The mother in the advertisement was a popular model, Sylvia Fitt.

According to Capparell, the "Leaders in Their Fields" series of advertisements profiled 20 African American achievers. Another series featured top students at black universities drinking Pepsi. There was also a series drawn by Jay Jackson, an African American cartoonist noted for his satirical commentary on racism.

Racism was a reality that Boyd and his team encountered regularly. Inherent in the job description of the 12-man team that Boyd led was a requirement that they be able to endure the daily injustices of life in the U.S. in the days of Jim Crow laws. The team traveled the country, stopping at black colleges and churches, social clubs and neighborhood markets, promoting Pepsi. The salesmen rode on segregated trains, were refused service at white-owned hotels and faced threats by the Ku Klux Klan and insults from some colleagues at Pepsi.

In an odd twist, Mack, the visionary who hired them, was responsible for one of the team's most painful moments.

The setting was the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where Pepsi bottlers -- including those from the South -- had gathered. By then Boyd's team had seen success and was respected in black communities. Pepsi revenues had risen. Hiring African Americans and offering scholarships had also built goodwill.

But some at Pepsi worried that the company ran the risk of being shunned by white consumers. In remarks to the bottlers, Mack explained the dilemma: "We don't want to be known as the nigger drink," he said, according to a 1997 Wall Street Journal article.

An appalled Boyd registered his protest by standing and slowly walking out of the ballroom, what he later called "the longest walk in my life." He knew Mack and knew that sentiment was not his; he was pandering to the bottlers who felt that way.

"I didn't forget it, but I didn't hold it against him either," Boyd told Capparell in a Wall Street Journal article in January.

Although the marketing campaign proved successful, a new company president disbanded the team and let Boyd go. But by then history had been made.

In recent months, Boyd expressed surprise that people were interested in his story. He said he was "simply in the right place at the right time."

"We told him yes, he was in the right place, but he also brought the skills and talents that were necessary for the challenge," said his son Timothy Boyd of Chicago.

Born in Riverside on June 27, 1914, Boyd grew up in a solid, middle-class family. After graduating from high school in 1932, Boyd, a gifted singer, trained at a local opera company. His dream was to become a diplomat, but after earning a degree from UCLA in 1938, he saw few avenues open to him for realizing that goal.

After a brief acting career, Boyd worked for a federal war housing program, then found work at the Civil Service Commission in San Francisco, becoming the first African American professional to work there, according to a biography released by his family. Boyd was employed as a housing specialist with the National Urban League when Pepsi hired him.

Leaving PepsiCo meant leaving a rare opportunity.

"For a black man in America who had executive responsibility, finding another job of that level was extremely difficult and probably some of the hardest times that he had were the in-between periods," Timothy Boyd said.

But the decades that followed were filled with rich and varied work experiences that included travel to Egypt and Gaza to head food relief missions and work with the Society of Ethical Culture in New York, offering leadership training to high school students. Years after retiring in 1981, Boyd broke new ground again, this time as a pioneer in the burgeoning business of alpaca farming. He raised the animals on his 120-acre farm in Sullivan County in New York State.

In addition to his son Timothy, Boyd is survived by his wife, the former Edith Jones; daughter Rebecca Boyd-Driver of New York; and sons Brandon of New York and Edward Jr. of Boulder, Colo.

Over the years Boyd witnessed niche marketing become a standard practice in corporate America. He also lived long enough to see corporations diversify in ways that did not exist in the 1940s. The chairman and CEO of PepsiCo is now Indra Nooyi -- a woman born in India.

"When I think of how the odds were against us, I never would have thought a woman could take Mack's place," Boyd told Capparell, "and even less that a person of color could."

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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