By Debbie Millman
The first person to serve as the model for the Aunt Jemima brand was Nancy Green, a woman born into slavery. She was chosen to represent the brand because the company wanted a mammy-type character—someone subservient, eternally kind and jovial, devoted to caring for others—to market their product. The name “Aunt Jemima” itself has problematic origins, having been taken from the minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima.” Little changed over the next 130 years, though every so often her image was altered to reflect the times. Aunt Jemima last received a makeover in 1989, when her headband was removed and pearl earrings were added. Despite the cosmetic changes, Aunt Jemima was still representative of a very specific and narrow way of seeing black women.
In June 2020, amidst worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, the cultural conversation expanded to include racist iconography.
Within 24 hours of trending on Twitter, Quaker Oats announced it would drop the Aunt Jemima name and change the brand’s packaging by the end of the year. Not to be outdone in the race to prove corporate wokeness, Mars Food, the owner of the Uncle Ben’s rice brand, and ConAgra Brands, the maker of Mrs. Butterworth’s, followed suit and declared that they too would undertake complete brand and packaging reviews. Neither ConAgra nor Mars indicated they would definitively remove either character but declared “they were evaluating all possibilities.”
The packaging for both Uncle Ben’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s features problematic brand identities and even more problematic origins. The rice was originally called “Uncle Ben’s Plantation Rice.” Uncle Ben, the man gracing the packaging for more than 70 years, bore a resemblance to servants and Pullman porters until 2007, when Mars reinvented Ben as a corporate CEO. When the product launched in 1943, Ben was called “Uncle Ben” instead of “Mr. Ben” because white Southerners refused to refer to black people with the honorifics, such as “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” that they used for their white peers. The shape of the Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle, meanwhile, was originally associated with a mammy persona and has changed little since its creation in 1961.
While the decision to rethink these brands is a sound one—and long overdue—it is simply not enough. Not only do the brands need to change, so do the mindsets that contributed to the branding and their longevity.
Historically, character-endorsed products provided the only point of differentiation between brands and their competitors. The engagement with a fictional but thoroughly believable persona initially created the first consumer relationship. With these character inventions, you could relate to, project onto and be seduced by something more than merely a product. During the radio soap operas of the 1920s, a man projected so intently on Betty Crocker—believing she was a real person—he called the corporate offices and asked for Betty’s hand in marriage.
The legacy of racist iconography on the packaging of some of the biggest consumer brands in the world is long and storied. Whether it is the recently eliminated kneeling Native American “butter maiden” on Land O’Lakes packaging or the topless Tropic-Ana on Tropicana orange juice or the ever-present Rastus, the barely literate black man in a white chef’s uniform on Cream of Wheat cereal or Miss Chiquita, the banana brand’s mascot outfitted in a tight, low-cut dance costume while balancing a basket of fruit on her head, stereotypes have been served to consumers since the advent of the trademark registration act in 1876. It’s lazy, derivative, shameful and inexcusable.
These examples are blatant and egregious. What remains mostly overlooked in today’s supermarket is the abundant use of white, conventionally attractive characters and mascots to signify the “ideal.” Blonde white females, from infants to women of a certain age, pervade every corner of the supermarket, and include the Gerber baby, the Coppertone girl, Morton Salt’s umbrella girl and Betty Crocker.
In the history of consumer packaging, there has never been a person of color featured on the front face panel of a product that wasn’t racist or positioned as an “ethnic” product. Even manufactured mascots on children’s cereal packaging, including the Keebler Elves, Rice Krispies’ Snap, Crackle and Pop, and the Lucky Charms leprechaun present as white. As recently as 2016, research showed that children are significantly more likely to demonstrate a preference for brands featuring a character on the packaging over similar products without a character. The preference in the study only included white characters or anthropomorphized animals, because these are the only representations available.
Despite the fact that the world’s biggest fast-moving consumer goods company is creating ads signaling allegiance to Black Lives Matter, the stronghold of white characters in the American supermarket makes it abundantly clear that the aspirational ideal for all consumers is mired in racist stereotypes and white supremacy.
We are in a time of reckoning. The outright bias allowing products like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s to sit in supermarkets in 2020, unquestioned, is rightly being dismantled. But it’s vital that we recognize that not only are the only images of African Americans racist caricatures, but that the images of white women we see only reinforce the notion that what we should all aspire to is whiteness. Racism is not only alive and well in our day-to-day lives, it is alive and well on the shelves of our local supermarkets. We are loudly declaring that Black Lives Matter. We are fighting for change. We are working to eradicate racism wherever it appears—in ourselves, our homes, our communities and in the products we use every day. It is well past time for consumer brands to accurately and ethically reflect the world we live in. Let’s hope they are up to the challenge.