Why Has It Taken This Long To Detach From Racist Brands?

by Jessica Deseo on 06/19/2020 | 5 Minute Read

It's June 2020 in Los Angeles. 

We are not the same after May 25th, 2020, and we can no longer continue down the road we were on. While a virus runs rampant globally, the police murder Black Americans at a terrifying rate. Taking a stance on the issue is now crucial, and silence means complicity. Saying you’re “not racist” will no longer suffice; you must be vehemently anti-racist. The days of not voting or talking about politics at the table are over, as the lines of politics and humanity become increasingly blurred. We have to change, and we must do better, must fight harder to change a world where we can no longer condone systemic racism and oppression.

What does this mean? 

After the fatal video of George Floyd getting murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, those horrifying 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a world erupted where black voices not only needed to be heard loud and clear but acknowledged at long last. Many of us are now listening and, so it seems, are brands. 

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Brands play an enormous role in our society. Whether you love them or not, they are a part of the social fabric; we memorize their jingles, we buy their nostalgia, and we feel an emotional kinship with them. So, when your favorite soda, snack, or beloved fast-food rebrands, many consumers feel an initial sense of outrage, because we historically don't like our beloved brands to change.

What happened June 17, 2020? The Quaker Oats Company, a division of PepsiCo, announced that they would finally retire Aunt Jemima Syrup and Pancake Mix. Over the years, they would try to soften Aunt Jemima’s image, doing away entirely with the slave mammy caricature she started as until finally she was the portrait of a working grandmother happy to serve her grandchildren. However, Quaker could never shake off the brand’s racist stereotype, a character inspired by a minstrel show staple called “Old Aunt Jemima,” a popular song where a white man would typically wear blackface and portray the slave mammy, singing of a master’s promise to her that she would get freed someday, but remaining in captivity and forced to a life of servitude. 

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This is big news and a call to action for other brands that use similar stereotypes and images in their branding and packaging. Uncle Ben's, along with Mrs. Butterworth's, also announced that they would review their branding ( on the same day, no less), and now we wait for others to inevitably follow suit. 

Of course, when we shared the news about Aunt Jemima on our Facebook page, some of our followers had other opinions on the matter. Some users referenced a fake meme about the origins of Aunt Jemima, claiming that Nancy Green—a freed slave and cook hired by the Davis Milling Company to portray their syrup icon and trademark until she died in 1923—was a shining example of Black excellence. Apparently, she had “rolled her talent into a cooking brand that General Mills bought” and that she was one of “America’s first black millionaires.”

If history proves anything, it’s that even today, Black women are still woefully underpaid, and Nancy Green was not fairly compensated for her work, nor was she a millionaire in her lifetime. 

In fact, in 2015, Green’s heirs along with other descendants of Black women that portrayed Aunt Jemima sued Quaker Oats for $2 billion and a share of future revenue from sales of the popular brand. A judge dismissed the lawsuit for lack of evidence and at the time, a representative from Quaker said, "The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality, and comfort and is neither based on nor meant to depict any one person.”

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What we do know is that the image throughout the years has radically changed from the servant with a headscarf to a trimmed-down domestic with pearls and curls to now being completely removed from the grocery aisle. Killing the brand crystalizes the moment and shows us the moment we're living through right now.

Last April, Land O’Lakes decided to remove the Native American butter maiden from their packaging, sparking outrage on Twitter from folks decrying this as nothing more than virtue signaling. Some said they would no longer purchase the butter now that the woman was gone, saying ostensibly that this was part of the current hyper-vigilant trend of political correctness. Boycotts and outrage aside, it’s hard not to see how consumers can feel a passionate, deep attachment to brands. But the reality is that they're holding on to an emotional idea that’s both racially charged and out of step with the world.

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The truth of the matter is that we cannot deny the stereotypes that contribute to systemic racism and our implicit biases. When brands continue to use this type of branding on their packaging, they are choosing to maintain the status quo, feeding into a consumer’s emotional nostalgia, one that is so ingrained, that they don't view it as racist anymore—even when those images and icons celebrate nothing more than historical revisionism, a time of whites and Black slaves peacefully coexisting in the pre-Civil War South. These images represent an idea and time in the United States that we can no longer celebrate; it's a part of history we should not buy into or commemorate.

The counter-argument, of course, is, "Where does it end?" Are we going to remove our beloved Tapatio man? What about Chiquita Banana? Or sports teams like the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, or the Cleveland Indians? Where do brands draw the line? 

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A brand can always reinvent themselves or rebrand without a character, and it would be a welcome change. Design, strategy, and research are powerful, and solutions without stereotyped personas exist, and agencies and brands can carry them out in a careful, exacting way that consumers can emotionally resonate with. 

Ultimately though, how we present identity must fundamentally transform, and it’s a conversation between brands and their consumers that needs to evolve continuously. A new world is upon us, one that no longer wants to utilize stereotypes in the packaging and branding we see in our everyday lives, and honestly, it’s about time.

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