Lowell Thompson's movie 'Channels Changers' shows how Black Chicagoans changed the ad game in the 'Mad Men' era

Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — Someone, I’ve long thought, should make a movie of Lowell Thompson’s life and finally that is happening. A painter/writer/former ad man/legendary storyteller, Thompson is making the movie himself, collaborating with some old colleagues from the advertising world and some new friends. He is typically enthusiastic, saying, “I’m thinking Oscars,” and then erupting in his distinctively joyful laugh.

The film is titled “Channels Changers” and you can see a bit of it on YouTube. It is to be a feature-length movie about the pioneering Black people who began to influence the advertising business during the 1960s and beyond.

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

That book is a soon-to-be-published memoir titled “Mad Invisible Man,” which charts not only Thompson’s life but is a behind-the-scenes look at the all but forgotten or ignored ways in which Black talent contributed to the creation of some of the most prominent commercials, on and most profoundly, behind the cameras.

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

Thompson says, rightly, “This film is more than just me.” He then talks of his life, going back to his birth in Bronzeville in 1947.


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

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

He took a job as “office boy” in the Chicago Tribune’s Creative Services Department, where he worked illustrating clothing advertisements. His portfolio soon landed him a job with the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding. His timing was fortuitous. In the midst of the civil rights movement and in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, companies were eager to reach out to the African American community and ad agencies began to recruit Black applicants.

Thompson became an art director, working for the Chicago offices of many of the biggest agencies in the world, on campaigns for Coca-Cola, United Airlines and helping produce the first Black-audience TV commercials for McDonald’s. Though he was happy and “never felt any racism personally,” he began to sense an undercurrent of racism in the business and wrote a lengthy article about that for Print magazine called “The Invisible Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”


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