Last Wednesday, the bell finally tolled for Aunt Jemima, the mascot and name of the 130-year-old pancake brand, as the company announced it would rebrand, minus the racist stereotypes. By later that night, the makers of other iconic food mascots with problematic profiles announced they are considering overhauls, too.
B&G, which owns the Cream of Wheat brand of porridge, said it is launching an “immediate review” of its packaging, which has for over a century featured a smiling Black man that brings to mind Jim Crow-era stereotypes of subservience. In earlier times, the man was named Rastus, a moniker often used for characters in minstrel shows, and was portrayed in the company advertising as semiliterate. He’s now generically referred to as a chef.
“We understand there are concerns regarding the chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism,” the company said in a statement emailed last Wednesday night. “B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind.”
Earlier in the day, Mars, the conglomerate behind the Uncle Ben’s rice line, which bears the image of an older Black man, said the company was planning to “evolve.”
“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” the statement read. “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.”
And Conagra, the maker of the Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake syrups, said it would launch a “complete brand and packaging review.” It said the brand’s signature bottle was intended to evoke a generic grandmotherly image, but its shape, believed to be created using as a model the Black actress Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen, who played Prissy in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind,” has been criticized for perpetrating the stereotype of the “mammy,” an enslaved Black woman who raised her master’s children.
“We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities, and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values,” the company said in a news release.
The brands did not immediately provide details of what their overhauls might look like.
Jason Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of “Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry,” said the current climate has made it impossible for brands – even those that had weathered criticism for decades – to do nothing. Nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police and the attention to racial justice issues, along with social media scrutiny that could turn on a company in an instant, created a set of circumstances that demanded change, he said.
“You could be left with a brand that is smoldering on the heap,” he said. “This moment is that big.”
David Pilgrim, the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, notes that the images on these products stand out for being so out of step with modern times.
“Most of the harsh images of African Americans were replaced decades ago,” he said. “But I call this the residue – we still live in the residue of Jim Crow. It might not be as harsh, but there are still remnants of the ugly days.”
Pilgrim said the images connote racist tropes, even as the companies tried throughout the years to modernize them. “You see servile black folks who are content, if not happy, to serve whites,” he said. Their names, particularly the use of “aunt” and “uncle,” hark back to times when whites would not bother to address Black people by their full names, he said.
Until recently, change had come slowly for these brands.
The mascots of these brands have undergone various makeovers over the years: A short-lived campaign in 2007 depicted Uncle Ben as an executive at the company bearing his name. Aunt Jemima was given a new look in 1989, with pearl earrings and a lace collar in place of her headscarf.
Few of the changes, Pilgrim said, have been meaningful. Years ago, the Aunt Jemima brand contacted him to solicit ideas for ways to update the character, he said. The ideas he suggested included depicting the character eating, which he thought would send a subtle but powerful message that she was not just cooking for others.
“There’s something communally beautiful when you’re sharing a meal, as opposed to making a meal and then standing in the kitchen,” he said.
His ideas weren’t adopted.
The swift succession of moves by these food companies threw into contrast the few major national brands remaining on supermarket shelves whose names or mascots have provoked controversy. Chiquita Banana, whose mascot is a Carmen Miranda-esque figure stereotypical of Latin culture, did not respond to an emailed query.
Although much of the reaction to the news on social media was met with some version of “What took so long?,” others expressed dismay at the apparent demise of the longstanding characters.
Chambers says some white people might greet the news defensively, and he allowed that many people have “irrational” attachments to certain brands.
“If you tell me a brand represents stereotypes and racism, then I might read that as an attack on me,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘I’m not racist.’”
But he says it is often a matter of perspective: “You might have the latitude to see it as just pancake mix, so hey, you enjoy your pancake mix.”