Why are familiar brands with Black images getting a rethink? – News – Star Courier – Kewanee, ILJune 30, 2020
Aunt Jemima is retiring. Uncle Ben is changing. Mrs. Butterworth is getting a review. One way or another, these and other familiar brands are being rethought due to their use of Black images in packaging and ads. Jason Chambers can explain why. He’s a professor of advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and studies the history of the business as it relates to African Americans. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What’s the central objection to some of these brands?
The central objection is their perpetuation of a negative stereotype, a derogatory image. Among these cases, Aunt Jemima is the foremost example. It is the perpetuation of a more-than-century-old stereotype of the African American woman, whether that’s in terms of service, appearance or happiness in servitude to Caucasians. It’s the perpetuation of a servile image of African Americans and it’s been objected to nearly as long as it’s been around. It’s the perpetuation of an image African Americans would rather not see, and of a name that can be used as an insult.
Complaints against these brands are not new, and yet they’ve survived. What’s driving companies to take or consider more drastic measures now?
It’s a combination of the visible social pressure, as well as money – and you could probably reverse those two. In this moment, any brand or organization perceived to be on the wrong side of things in regard to race in America is running a risk of becoming the next great public story. In contrast to earlier moments that relied on mainstream media, social media has changed all that. You can reach tens, hundreds, millions of people as an individual or a small organization to carry these arguments forth. And companies know that. Companies can see the spikes of negative public opinion in the ebb and flow of their brands or their sales, moment by moment.
That is a powerful, powerful motivator that companies have not had to deal with at this level before. Prior to the spread of social media, a boycott took weeks to organize and required a lot of mainstream media attention. You don’t need that anymore. A social media story can also maintain a life of its own after the major press has turned back to other issues. It’s a motivator to just make the change – boom, and it’s done – and not say you’ll investigate it, think about it, talk about it, organize a commission to examine it.
Isn’t it understandable when companies hesitate to make major changes to a brand?
Every company in this situation has to decide whether it can take the chance and withstand the public scrutiny or outcry and maintain things as they are. But it’s a risky proposition. A lot of companies, as nonsensical as it sounds, don’t actually know their own history. They have a tendency to look forward rather than back. But a lot of people do look back and if companies have these objectionable things in their history, they may…