‘Channels Changers’ Movie Shows Black Chicagoans in Ads

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Someone, I’ve long thought, should make a movie about Lowell Thompson’s life and finally that’s what’s happening. A legendary painter/writer/ex-advertiser/storyteller, Thompson directs the film himself, collaborating with former advertising colleagues and new friends. He’s usually enthusiastic, saying, “I’m thinking about the Oscars,” then bursts into his typically gleeful laugh.

The movie is called “Channels Changers” and you can see some of it here. It will be a feature film about the black pioneers who began to influence the advertising industry in the 1960s and beyond.

Thompson and former Chicago publicist Cotton Stevenson serve as co-executive producers on the film. “After leaving the advertising industry and Chicago, I started making documentaries (“Diversity University” (2014), “Stand” (2016) and “The Good Brothers” (2019)) and had success “, he told me, from his home in California. “I first met Lowell on Facebook and we shared some political and global views and we both came from the advertising world. Chicago is where I came to right after college. I met my wife. We had a son. When I came to visit him earlier this year, Lowell and I met and he told me about his new book and that was it.

This book is a soon-to-be-published memoir titled “Mad Invisible Man,” which not only chronicles Thompson’s life, but is a behind-the-scenes look at the nearly forgotten or overlooked ways black talent has helped create. of some of the most important commercials, on and deeper, behind the cameras.

“It’s an important story that needs to be told,” Stevenson said.

Thompson rightly says, “This movie is more than me.” He then recounts his life, going back to his birth in Bronzeville in 1947.

His family – Lowell was one of 11 children – soon moved into an apartment in what was then the clean and safe public housing estate of Robert Taylor Homes.

Drawing pictures from early childhood, he showed enough talent at Wendell Phillips High School to earn a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute. But he left after six months, feeling, “I saw no future in what was essentially an all-white art world.”

He took a job as an “office boy” in the creative services department of the Chicago Tribune, where he worked illustrating clothing advertisements. His portfolio soon landed him a job at advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding. His timing was fortuitous. Amid the civil rights movement and following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., corporations were eager to reach out to the African-American community, and ad agencies began recruiting black candidates.

Thompson became an art director, working for the Chicago offices of many of the world’s top agencies, on campaigns for Coca-Cola, United Airlines, and helping to produce the first black-audience television ads for McDonald’s. Although he was happy and “never felt any racism personally”, he began to sense an undercurrent of racism in the business and wrote a long article about it for Print magazine titled “L ‘Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’.

This article led to an Advertising Age story with the title “Dirty Little Secret”. Thompson felt the industry sting, as his publicity work dried up. He went on to found the non-profit Partnership Against Racism and for a time co-hosted a weekly WLIT-FM radio show called “The Race Question”.

He also devoted more time to his own painting and writing. In 2012, he had his biggest hit writing “African Americans in Chicago” (Arcadia Publishing). “I was in a bookstore and saw books about Italians in Chicago, Jews, Japanese — but none about African Americans,” he says. “So I sent them an email that said, ‘I’m the man to do it. “”

Arcadia agreed, and the book has been a steady bestseller ever since.

He also wrote “Whitefolks: Seeing America Through Black Eyes” in 1995 and “Branding Humans: Selling White Supremacy to America” ​​in 2018.

I’ve written about Thompson before. He is always full of ideas and opinions and a charming self-confidence. As he said of “RaceMan Answers,” his self-published e-book and paperback softcover in 2014, “This book can solve the problem of race in the United States.”

He has, as you can see, a racy look. His left eye, troublesome since birth, got worse after he turned 50. As he started having double vision, he started wearing a patch. But he always knew how to handle words. Some time ago he said to me, “There are only two types of people in Chicago. Those who have the blues and those who give it.

He lived modestly in Uptown for many years and is always on the go, at cafes, bookstores and galleries, events of all kinds.

He and Stevenson continue to work on their film. They shot interviews and other material in May, connecting with old company friends, and have already received a donation from the president of a major ad agency here and recently launched a GoFundMe page.

One can easily sense the zeal of the two men as Thompson puts it: “It is the black hands and minds behind some of the whitest advertisements in America. We colorized them from the inside, that’s the beauty of it.

The couple originally thought they might need a professional actor as their narrator/host, but, says Stevenson, “As soon as I saw Lowell on camera, I said, ‘This is all. “”

Thompson smiles and says, “I look into myself and think, ‘Well, maybe I missed my calling.’ I could have been Denzel.

And then he laughs.

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