Last week Wednesday as I drove into the doctor’s office with my mom and NPR played throughout the car speakers, I heard Brian Lehrer announce that Rice brand Uncle Ben’s would be changing its name to Ben’s Original. The company would scrap their 70- year old logo and name that has come under fire for endorsing a racist stereotype.
“Ha,” I laughed. “I always knew something was off about that logo,” I told my mom.
I remember sitting on my Ummi and Baba’s itchy couch as a child, and watching Uncle Ben’s commercials play on the screen in between Jeopardy ! Most of them were pretty sweet : a Black father and his son, stirring the instant rice over the stove and dancing as they added veggies and seasoning to the pot (despite going down the deep tunnel of Ad Youtube I could not find this video). Another a father and son, the claymation kind, snacked on potato chips when the father realizes “Man I need to get my son some real food,” and the next second they’re stirring Uncle Ben’s too. Almost brought tears to my eyes.
However, the logo Uncle Ben’s has been promoting since the 1940s evokes servitude. The rice boxes feature a white-haired elderly Black man with a bowtie; playing into the Uncle Tom caricature : the faithful, and happily submissive servant to the all-mighty white man. Mars Incorporated owns the food company and has said that the face was originally modeled after a Chicago maitre d’ named Frank Brown.
This news reminded me of the announcement made by Quaker Oats in June when they said they would be dropping their Aunt Jemima character from syrup and pancake packaging. And when the owner of Eskimo Pie said the chocolate-coated ice cream bar would have a name change as well, that same month. It seems like a cultural awareness switch has been turned on for (most) non- people of color, where they have realized their privilege and how it blinds them from everything — even what they spend their money on. Now brands are changing names, logos, CEOs, and all the above.
T.V. advertisements, brands, and logos have a long history of playing into American culture and reflect society's ideals when produced. Dozens of outdated logos are drawn onto our food products, but the average civilian doesn't realize this because to them, "The box has always looked that way! Why change it ?"
Well, I think it is time to examine the dark tunnel of racist Ad Icons that have tainted America for years and how this recent switch may promise a beaming light of a more inclusive future in advertising.
Aunt Jemima : 1889 - 2020
"My old missus promise me . . .When she died she-d set me free . . . She lived so long her head got bald . . . She swore she would not die at all . . ." sang Aunt Jemima before the audience of a minstrel show. The white men dressed in blackface to play her would sing on about Aunt Jemima's yearnings to be set free, although she knew she would remain a slave forever.
The inspiration for Aunt Jemima came from the song written by a Black performer named Billy Kersands in 1875, "Old Aunt Jemima." Aunt Jemima was first introduced in a minstrel show in the late 19th century. Minstrel shows were popular American entertainment back then, filled with skits, comedy, dancing, singing, and music. White performers acted in blackface for these shows to play the roles of Black people. Minstrel shows, depicted Black people disgustingly and negatively — they were portrayed as lazy, docile, dumb, wild, and happy-go-lucky bafoons. Aunt Jemima was shown as a Slave Mammy of the plantation South — an obese, broad grinning Black woman who is faithful to her white employers by all means.
In 1889, the 'Self-Rising Pancake Flour' was born, but after one of the founders saw the Aunt Jemima character while attending a minstrel show, he was inspired to rename the product to "Aunt Jemima's" and use her image to promote his new invention.
News stories on the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago described Green standing next to the world's largest flour barrel, making pancakes and telling romanticized stories about her days as a slave in the South. The real Nancy Green is on the second slide.
After selling the product to the Davis Milling Company, the company hired former slave, Nancy Green, to play Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The family Ms. Green worked for, the Walker's, were the ones who brought her to audition for the role of Aunt Jemima. In the 1930s, after Quaker Oats bought the brand, Aunt Jemima's Radio Show was formed, and the character was played by a white actress who had performed Blackface on Broadway. A 1955 ad shows Aunt Jemima surrounded by white guests on her master's plantation with a caption that reads, "Coax as long as they might, guests at Colonel Higbee's plantation never could get from Aunt Jemima the flavor secret of those wonderful pancakes."
Quaker Oats has inched towards fixing the racist imagery of Aunt Jemima over the years. During the 1960's they lightened Aunt Jemima's skin and made her look skinner in ads, replaced the scarf on her head with a plaid headband in 1968, and added pearl earrings and a lace collar in 1989. They removed the Southern plantation backstory, and she no longer had a speaking role. By making her lighter and muting her voice, Aunt Jemima represented a house slave more than ever. But the decision to drop the Aunt Jemima name and change the packaging of the brand didn't come until June 17th of this year. After George Floyd, a Black man killed after being pinned down by a white Minneapolis police officer, protests against police brutality and racism spread worldwide, promoting Quaker Oats's decision.
[ Read more about the History of Aunt Jemima’s here ]
Kristin Kroepfl, the Quaker Oats chief marketing officer, said in a statement that Wednesday, "While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough."
Dominique Wilburn, the executive assistant at PepsiCo, said that Quaker Oats has considered doing away with the logo since 2016. Team members suggested changing the character's name to "Aunt J," and someone called to send Quaker Oats employees to a Southern plantation to help them understand the legacy of slavery, Ms. Wilburn said. But gaining approval from top executives at PepsiCo was difficult, partly because PepsiCo found itself in a controversy after running a commercial that showed Kendall Jenner, a white model, delivering a can of Pepsi to a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest. PepsiCo said in a statement that there were "several workstreams" reviewing the brand in 2016 and that "due to personnel changes and shifting priorities, the workstream was eventually put on hold."
Quaker Oats ended their statement by saying they would donate at least $5 million over the next five years "to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community."
It was the invention that made inventor, Christian Kent Nelson, "rich overnight," according to a 1922 New York Times article about the dessert. "Probably no innovation of recent years designed to meet the cravings of a sweet tooth has met with such instantaneous success in New York, Chicago, and other cities," The Times article reported.
Eskimo pie was America's first chocolate-covered ice cream bar. In 1920 a little boy walked into the sweet shop Nelson worked at and reached for ice cream but then changed his mind and decided to buy a chocolate bar. According to a 2017 article in Smithsonian magazine, when Nelson questioned the boy as to why he didn't buy both sweets, the child replied: "Sure I know — I want 'em both, but I only got a nickel."
For weeks, Nelson worked to find the perfect method to stick melting chocolate on to freezing ice cream and saw that cocoa butter was ideal. He started selling his new invention as the 'I-Scream' Bars' which were an immediate success at the local fireman's picnic, writes archivist Maurita Baldock. After teaming up with chocolatier Russell C. Stover — the bars were changed to Eskimo Pies at Stover's request — the men agreed to sell the bars to local ice cream companies for $500 and $1000 and take a cut out of each treat sold. Eskimo Pies have been in the refrigerators to millions of American families across the world from then on.
The packages of Eskimo Pie long featured a small dark-haired child in a puffy parka and mittens, sledding down a snowy hill with “M-m-melts in your mouth !” written in bright blue.
Eskimo is used in Alaska to refer to Inuit and Yupik people, but is used in other Arctic regions, including Siberia, Canada, and Greenland. However, in many parts of the Arctic, it is considered a derogatory term because it was used by non-Native colonizers who were racist towards the natives as they settled on their land. For a long time, it was thought that the word meant "eater of raw meat," which only further steered a negative notion of barbarism and violence towards Inuit and Yupik people. The word's exact etymology is still unclear. In 2016, linguists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks believed the name Eskimo might have come from the French word esquimaux, meaning one who nets snowshoes. Netting snowshoes is how Artic people created sustainable footwear for decades, weaving sinew from caribou or other animals across a wooden frame. However, this new record has come too late to erase the ugly past, Eskimo still has for many people.
Greenland native Nina-Vivi Andersen, has her own perspective on the word Eskimo: "I don't mind to be called Eskimo — it is neutral for me. But when I saw an ice cream store in London with a name — Eskimo — it felt weird. But I feel weird to be called Inuit, too. I'm just a Greenlander."via John W. Poole/NPR
On June 20, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, the company that owns the dessert, said it would be changing the product’s name and brand marketing.
“We are committed to being a part of the solution on racial equality, and recognize the term is inappropriate,” said Elizabell Marquez, head of marketing for Dreyer’s, in a statement on June 20. “This move is part of a larger review to ensure our company and brands reflect our people's values.”
Dryer’s said it plans to have a new name for the ice cream bars by the end of the year and would discontinue the character of the Eskimo.
Miss Chiquita was first introduced to the world by Chiquita Brands in 1944, according to the company's website.
The "first lady of fruit" was originally a cartoon banana drawn onto ads and the company's peel-off sticker. She wore a frilly red dress, had long tan legs, and hoisted a hat full of tropical fruits upon her head. She resembled Brazilian Hollywood icon Carmen Miranda, who reached the height of her fame during the same time Miss Chiquita was born.
In 1987, Miss Chaquita was humanized, after Pink panther creator, Oscar Grillo drew the logo as the frilly and smiling woman we see in stores today.
However, Chiquita brands perpetuate the stereotype that Latina Women are hypersexual, and Latin American countries are primitive and happy go lucky states filled with dancing and smiles 24/7.
In an article titled, “Peeling Back the Truth on Bananas”, the sustainability non-profit, the Food Empowerment Project says Miss Chiquita is, "another way in which non-white bodies have been objectified and exploited."
The organization points out how workers at banana plantations are underpaid and these large distributors have a history of using child labor on their land. The text notes how this is direct opposition to how Miss Chiquita is portrayed; “Chiquita Banana personifies a colonialist idea of the tropics as a place of simplicity and abundance, and her characterization as fun and carefree is particularly insulting considering the realities of banana production, which are anything but.”
"Chiquita Banana and the Cannibals" is a blatantly racist commercial that first aired on U.S. televisions in the 1940s. The animated short shows a stereotypical version of an African man, cooking a white man over a cauldron when Miss Chiquita banana interrupts singing: "If you'd like to be refined and civilized, then your eating habits really ought to be revised," to the tune of the company's famous jingle. She then suggests a recipe for banana scallops as an alternative. "I'd like to say banana scallops taste to me like very cultured eating," the African man slurps and offers some to the white man as Chiquita winks, her "job" solved. Then the ad fades to black.
CNN reported that Chiquita brands has not commented on whether or not they will change their brand's name or logo.
“She was never created as a stereotype,” said Robert DesJarlait earlier this April in his op-ed in the Washington Post. His father, Patrick DesJarlait, was the Chippewa artist who created Mia — the former Land O’ Lakes mascot that most of us have recognized in our fridge for decades.
Mia was originally created in 1928 by a white artist and reworked again in 1939 when Patrick DesJarlait stepped in 30 years later. As a Native American he was a rarity in the illustration business at the time, his son commented. He decided to pull from his personal view on the world and drew Mia in a real Minnesota place: The Narrows, where Upper and Lower Red Lake connect. Land O’ Lakes is based in Arden Hills, Minnesota so his drawing was a nod to the company’s beginnings as well. “He added floral designs for the Chippewa culture. It was basically a redesign. He gave her a clearer image. So he was modernizing her a bit,” said Mr. DesJarlait, who is a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota.
The new Mia had an updated attire, including Ojibwe beadwork designs on her dress. The “O” in Land O’Lakes was also brought down, making it look almost like a halo on a Byzantine religious icon.
For some Mia was a symbol of a “simpler time.” But the smiling and calm Mia was out of place then and is out of place now given how horrible living conditions are for Native Americans on Reservations, the horrifying epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women across North America, the growing number of tribes losing their reservation status to Trump, and more. In Land O' Lakes home state of Minnesota, Native women make up less than 1 percent of the population, and yet, they experience murder rates at 10 times the national average. As Twin Cities PBS producer Keith Dragseth says, Mia is living proof that we live, “in a society actively wrestling with structural racism, white-centered narratives and perspectives, and cultural appropriation.”
For Mr. DesJarlait, removing his father's Mia that appeared in homes around the country was bittersweet. "I've never seen Mia as a stereotype. I know my dad didn't intend to create a stereotype… [He was] trying to show more the beauty of Native women." Mr. DesJarlait has been active in the anti-mascot movement since 1991 and was commissioned to write a short book called Rethinking Stereotypes: Native American Imagery in Non-Native Art and Illustration. However, in his mind, The Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo is a real stereotype; the exaggerated features, zero cultural context, and no Native input. Whereas Mia was the opposite: a loving and more positive portrayal of Native American women, with direct Native American input. He does understand the switch but believes that Land O’ Lakes is getting rid of Mia not because they want to discard a stereotype, but rather out of discomfort with representations of Native Americans of any kind.
[See here how NFL team the Washington Redskins also got rid of their team name and logo in July to discard the harmful Native American stereotype]
In the original February statement announcing the change Land O,’ Lakes did not make reference that they were changing the 100-year design because of negative depictions of Native Americans.
Beth Ford, the Land O’Lakes chief executive, said in the statement that as the company looked ahead to the expanding future, it recognized the need for “packaging that reflects the foundation and heart of our company culture.”
“Nothing does that better than our farmer-owners whose milk is used to produce Land O’Lakes’ dairy products,” she said.
Now we circle back to Ben's Original, the product that got me thinking about this topic. As well as changing the name, Mars has announced they will make a $2 million investment in culinary scholarships for aspiring Black chefs in partnership with the National Urban League and a $2.5 million investment in nutritional education programs for students in Greenville, Mississippi. In this predominantly Black city, Uncle Ben's has been produced for more than four decades. And have set a goal to increase the number of people of color in their U.S. management jobs by 40%.
It is nice to see many brands take accountability for their past marketing, contributing to unfair stereotypes. Marketing still has a long way to go, so just in case you might want to recheck your fridge and see if any racist logos linger.