The last 75 years of advertising and branding have been a consistent mirror of our society and culture, reflecting our values and priorities, sometimes in ways that only seem obvious in retrospect.
In the past, sexism in advertising was rampant, such as this 1954 ad for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps, “You mean even a woman can open it?” An ad in 1951 for Van Heusen neckties used the headline, “Show her it’s a man’s world,” and featured a woman kneeling as she served her husband breakfast in bed. Decades later we have evolved enough to be appalled at ads like these and the brands that created them.
If either ad ran today a social media tsunami would ensue. Yet at the time they appeared, there was barely a ripple of discontent. Attitudes like these are ludicrous by today’s standards. And now, as our country faces rapidly increasing scrutiny of racism in many forms, companies are taking a hard look at how their brands may have perpetuated stereotypes that contribute to systemic racism.
The companies that own the brands Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat, and Mrs. Butterworth’s have all announced that they are either reviewing their branding or plan to retire it altogether in the case of Aunt Jemima. “One of the things these all share is this idea of reducing Black people to happy servants whose greatest joy in life is to serve white people,” said David Pilgrim the director and founder of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. “When we reduce people to that one dimension, it both shapes and reflects attitudes that people have about Black people.”
Until now, it has been common for some companies or brands to innocently say that they mean no harm, or that the imagery is respectful or an honor to the individual who puts a face on their brand. But attitudes like these fail to grasp the point of view of those who are offended. It’s akin to a man telling a woman that childbirth is not that difficult and he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.
But now, brands are far more accepting of criticism. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, Quaker Foods North America’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “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.”
For these companies and the brands in question it’s a case of where mission statements and company values are being tested and can actually be more than standard window dressing on the “about us” section of their website. Any company or brand that claims to value diversity should whether it they can do more within their culture and, yes, their brand, to represent that principle. Decades from now our culture will be judged by the actions we take today. Some brands are acting now to make changes for the better in the future.
Dave Taylor founded Taylor Brand Group, an agency located in Lancaster that provides branding and rebranding services.