This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

March 26, 2010

Like White On Rice

or, When a Bad Brand Goes (Even Further) Wrong

I was reminded of this 3-year-old post from my old blog after reading a piece from Stuff White People Do, entitled “describe racism as political incorrectness.” The original post was about an effort to re-brand a staple of US advertising lore as detailed in this story. I was (and remain) not impressed with the effort. By the way, out of curiosity I revisited Uncle Ben’s office to engage him in chat. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

[PPR_Scribe]: hello

[Ben]: Did you have my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice for dinner?

[PPR_Scribe]: no, not tonight

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: where are you?

[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.

[PPR_Scribe]: what are you doing?

[Ben]: Currently being fitted for a new blue suit. Upon returning and hanging up my new coat, will be in touch.

[PPR_Scribe]: so…you’re accepting an award, eating rice, and being fitted for a suit? at the same time?

[Ben]: State dinners would be more diplomatic if they always served my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice.  Can we pick up this conversation when I return?

[PPR_Scribe]: i have the feeling you really don’t want to chat with me at all…

[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.

[PPR_Scribe]: well, ok then. bye

[Ben]: Can you come by the office in person?

[PPR_Scribe]: um…no, i’m not really comfortable with that. why?

[Ben]: Out of office for rice harvesting season. My, those combines are loud. Will reply when I return.

[PPR_Scribe]: now you’re just being difficult…

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: (???)

*******************************

Uncle Ben’s Cabin

It is an oddity of the history of advertising that Black folks have been featured so often as part of companies’ brand identity. Apparently, at one point in time nothing could prompt a consumer to snatch a product off of a grocery shelf like a demeaning characterization of a smiling Negro. Of course, two of the better known Black characters are Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. (No relation? It’s hard to say as neither has ever had a last name. This blogger is trying to match-make them, though, so I hope they are not already kin…) I’ve talked before here about my relationship to the whole history of “racial naming.” Suffice it to say that for certain generations of Blacks, it is not endearing for White folks to refer to us as Uncle or Aunt (unless we are, in fact, their uncle or aunt.)

Uncle Ben’s image is most often discussed as part of the broader “Uncle Tom” racist caricature, seen in everything from advertising to film. This wonderful site sums up the image well. Aunt Jemima is often discussed as characteristic of the “Mammy” caricature. The same site linked in the previous sentence also provides a good description of Mammy depictions in advertising and elsewhere. The interesting thing about the pancake lady is that she underwent a make-over in the late 80s. Slimmed down, dressed up, no kerchief wrapped round her head. According to the company’s History web page, today “the Aunt Jemima products continue to stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families. “

That’s Chairman Uncle Ben

Enter the rice man’s makeover. According to the NYT story:

A racially charged advertising character, who for decades has been relegated to a minor role in the marketing of the products that still carry his name, is taking center stage in a campaign that gives him a makeover — Madison Avenue style — by promoting him to chairman of the company.

You can visit his virtual office here. I didn’t last very long in his office. With each click the sour taste in my mouth grew fouler and fouler. I expected at any minute to see a cheesin’ and shufflin’, bow-tie clad older virtual Black man jump out from his task of sharpening pencils to greet me by name. This blogger was braver than I, actually using the “chat” feature to engage the new Chairman in conversation. (If you can call it that.) Here’s an excerpt of their exchange:

[Guest]: Hi
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.
[Guest]: That’s great.
[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.
[Guest]: I don’t like rice.
[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.
[Guest]: Wait — I thought you were in the packaging department!
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.

Obviously still some bugs to work out. But my guess is Ben’s neither overseeing efforts in the Packaging Department nor sipping wine at some event in England, but–like I said–in an inner office sharpening pencils or involved in some other non-task his higher-ups assigned him as part of his “promotion.” Back to the Times:

“This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor,” said Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark, which publishes a magazine and Web site devoted to diversity in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of baggage associated with the image,” Mr. Visconti said, which the makeover “is glossing over.”

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life. A crucial aspect of his biography remains the same, though: He has no last name.

Indeed.

And the “cringe factor” just multiplies and multiplies. For example, asks one commenter to this site, “Does anyone else see irony in the company’s name — MasterFoods?” And several commenters elsewhere in the blogosphere have re-dubbed the company “Massafoods.”

I am no advertising executive. But this does not appear to be a re-branding effort that is destined to bear much fruit. Or grains of converted rice, as the case may be.

Ben There; Dumb, That

I do not buy Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never have. (And at this rate, never will.) I also do not buy any Aunt Jemima products. And if any of the products below were still available today, I wouldn’t buy them either. I come by this aversion to financing my own denigration honestly. As a child when we would travel the country by car, my father would drive 50 miles out of the way to avoid having us stop at a Sambo’s Restaurant for a meal or bathroom break.

The restaurant, perhaps not surprisingly, is also involved in a re-branding effort. This site attempts to set the story straight. Sambo’s, we’re told, was based on the names of the eatery’s founders, and the use of the book’s characters came about only later. (The whole story of The Story of Little Black Sambo is an interesting tale in its own right, but beyond this blog post. Begin here for further reading.) I’m not sure how helpful this re-telling is for understanding the restaurant–or the book and its many incarnations, for that matter. Why and how did folks running the company think that adorning their restaurant with images of “picanninies” would be a good marketing move? How do they now think that hearkening back to India’s colonial past would be a better or more sensitive move?

Beauty and the Brand

Companies, universities, and all manner of other entities spend millions in efforts to establish, redirect, and update their images. The book that I discuss in my still-draft blog post about re-branding is about what is being called “the attention economy.” In the Information Age, the scarce commodity that becomes extremely valuable is human attention. Not money, not information, not even “knowledge.” And certainly not an awareness of history. What matters is eyeballs to content. And when that is what matters, image is everything. (The book I’ll talk about speaks of this in terms of “fluff over stuff.”)

So what do we make of companies’ apparent reluctance to totally excise images of slavery and Jim Crow in trying to focus consumers’ eyeballs on products on crowded grocery shelves? I have framed the Uncle Ben’s effort as a potential fiasco, a massive marketing mistake. But what if it is, instead, a savvy business move? What if the company has discovered via its focus groups that images that remind people of the good old days of subservient, happy Blacks (who could sho-nuff cook!) continue to be comforting and endearing to many modern consumers?

Perhaps advertising’s racist past not even past, but only an old package in need of re-branding.

For further information on this topic, see the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

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