A challenging assignment for Thomas Hart Benton

“Thomas Hart Benton… counterposed the truth of his art against the lies of advertising in an account of his dispute with the American Tobacco Company in 1943.

“The company, pioneering what has become a standard business practice, sought to counteract its federal conviction for price-fixing by hiring N.W. Ayer to surround it with ‘jes’ folks’ imagery. Benton was a natural choice for the assignment: His work was accessible but carried connotations of high-art legitimacy. Yet when Benton was sent to the hills of south Georgia, and painted what the saw — black people harvesting tobacco — the agency executives complained: ‘The Negro institutions would boycott our products and cost us thousands of dollars if we showed pictures of this sort. They want Negroes presented as well-dressed and respectable members of society. If we did this, of course, then the whole of the white South would boycott us. So the only thing to do is to avoid the representation of Negroes entirely in advertising.’

“So Benton went to North Carolina ‘where the hillbillies handle tobacco’ and produced a picture of an old man and his granddaughter; the agency thought it was fine but that the girl was too skinny. ‘ “Everything about tobacco must look healthy,” the advertising people declared….’ ”

— From “Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America” by Jackson Lears (1995)