On the endorsement side, BusinessWeek magazine gave high marks to Cosby, saying, “The funniest man in America having fun with wiggly-jiggly Jell-O. It made you like them both more.” Jet reported in 1988 that Cosby “has been voted the most believable star on TV commercials. Cosby has boosted the sales of every product he has let his name and talent to including Jell-O, Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, Texas Instruments and Kodak film.”
Cosby taught Michael Jordan and a host of other athletes that pitching products on TV meant projecting an image of trustworthiness. “If someone like Bill Cosby endorses Jell-O, and you think that he is a great entertainer, whatever he’s telling you will have a strong resonance for you,” said Alter, “and that’s because you’re not listening so much to what he’s saying but you’re paying attention to the peripheral cues or the shallow cues about who’s delivering the message rather than what the content of the actual message is.”
Cosby’s syndication deal in 1988 was another business lesson for entertainers. Rights to air “The Cosby Show” for three years were sold to Fox for $550 million. “His syndication deal probably is the last one of its kind,” said Eunetta Boone, co-producer of the TV series “Living Single” and executive producer of “One on One” and “My Wife and Kids.” “I remember that when it happened, there had been no deal like that before.”
Cosby wasn’t the first black mogul-comic. America’s first black star was Bert Williams, who performed in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Williams was a great vaudeville comic and mime, but he also excelled at marketing his “product” despite rampant racism of the era. He became the first major black recording artist, a Broadway star, and in 1910 became the first black performer featured in a film. He died in 1922, having created the template for the ambling, tattered bumpkin that Stepin Fetchit (whose real name was Lincoln Perry) portrayed later in film.