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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Uncle Ben gets his 40 acres and a mule. But what about the rest of Black America?

Check out this informative slide show at Slate detailing the history of racist imagery used to sell products. Most of these are gone now, but you'd be surprised at just how long some of them lasted and how they were transformed over the years in order to tone down the offensiveness (i.e., keep the money flowing in).

It seems that Mars, Inc., the owners of Uncle Ben's, has opted to revive the character, bestowing upon him a massive promotion from cheerful bow-tied servant to CEO. According to the New York Times:
"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.

Vincent Howell, president for the food division of the Masterfoods USA unit of Mars, said that because consumers described Uncle Ben as having "a timeless element to him, we didn’t want to significantly change him."

"What’s powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position of prominence and authority," Mr. Howell said. "As an African-American, he makes me feel so proud."

The previous reluctance to feature Uncle Ben prominently in ads stood in stark contrast to the way other human characters like Orville Redenbacher and Colonel Sanders personify their products. That reticence can be traced to the contentious history of Uncle Ben as the black face of a white company, wearing a bow tie evocative of servants and Pullman porters and bearing a title reflecting how white Southerners once used "uncle" and "aunt" as honorifics for older blacks because they refused to say "Mr." and "Mrs."

In addition to Uncle Ben, there was Aunt Jemima, who sold pancake mix in ads that sometimes had her exclaiming, "Tempt yo’ appetite;" a grinning black chef named Rastus, who represented Cream of Wheat hot cereal; the Gold Dust Twins, a pair of black urchins who peddled a soap powder for Lever Brothers; the Frito Bandito, who spoke in an exaggerated Mexican accent; and characters selling powdered drink mixes for Pillsbury under names like Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry — the latter baring buck teeth.

"The only time blacks were put into ads was when they were athletic, subservient or entertainers," said Marilyn Kern Foxworth, the author of "Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."

But will the makeover take? There are some inconsistencies remaining.

Howard Buford, chief executive at Prime Access in New York, an agency specializing in multicultural campaigns, said he gave the campaign’s creators some credit. "It’s potentially a very creative way to handle the baggage of old racial stereotypes as advertising icons," he said, but "it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and make it ring true."

For instance, Mr. Buford said, noting all the "Ben" references in the ads, "Rarely do you have someone of that stature addressed by his first name" — and minus any signs of a surname.

Mr. Buford, who is a real-life black leader of a company, likened the promotion of Uncle Ben to the abrupt plot twists on TV series like "Benson" and "Designing Women," when black characters in subservient roles one season became professionals the next.
Nevertheless, Uncle Ben's has gone ahead with the project, even updating the website so that visitors can tour Chairman Ben's office, even reading his emails and checking his messages.

Americans, when tested, showed very little memory of Uncle Ben's racist past or the context in which the brand's imagery developed. As with the history of white supremacy in this country generally, white folks have preferred to move on and forget about it. Meanwhile, Mars, Inc., has likewise seemed to prefer to erase any sense of struggle from Uncle Ben's story, offering up a sanitized, history-less icon with no connection to actually existing time or place. Further, by not providing a plausible context and ignoring the history of Black struggle in this country, his mysterious promotion does nothing to undermine unfounded white "affirmative action" prejudices about the earned status of Blacks in prominent, non-sports and non-entertainment positions.
Mr. Visconti of Diversity Inc. Media struck a similar chord. He said he would have turned Ben’s office into “a learning experience,” furnishing it with, for example, books by Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’ve never been in the office of African-Americans of this era who didn’t have something in their office showing what it took to get them there,” Mr. Visconti said.
Still, Uncle Ben's promotion notwithstanding, massive disparities between the economic status and opportunities of whites and Blacks persist, rooted in several hundred years of white supremacy and today manifesting through the prison and education system, among others. Uncle Ben's stunning advancement may be a first step towards evening the playing field when it comes to imaginary characters, but what does the company plan to do about actually existing inequalities? In the end, it's one more lesson that capitalism is interested more in a PR whitewash than an actual redistribution of wealth and power. There's a surprise.


Blogger Coathangrrr said...

My goodness, best title ever.

Sun May 06, 01:36:00 PM 2007  

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