Why are familiar brands with Black images getting a rethink?
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 P. Chambers can explain why. He’s an associate 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 find themselves having to explain away derogatory stereotypical advertisements from their past that they didn’t even know existed.
Many consumers also don’t want to hear that these decisions are being slow-walked, with the feeling that the company is just hoping the issue will go away. Consumers are responding vastly differently to that now, often expecting an immediate and definitive response.
One response by companies in the past has been to update brand imagery to move it away from problematic origins. Does this ever work?
It depends upon what the image really is, and it depends upon what its original formulation was, what the original story was, and it can begin from there. It also depends on how many layers we’re talking about. With Aunt Jemima, for example, it has a historical layer, a visual layer and a named layer. But if you address those things, then you can tell consumers, we’ve heard you. We’ve responded to you. And then once you’ve made those arguments, then you can also remind them why they like your product.
A lot of companies, institutions and organizations have questionable histories in terms of race, but depending upon the changes they make in the present, people can look and say that was part of your past, that was part of your history. But you’re trying to change now, so let me watch you and see how genuine those changes are.
You’re finishing a book about Tom Burrell, the Chicago ad man who revolutionized how African Americans were portrayed in ads and how they were viewed as consumers, starting in the 1970s. What were the keys to his success that advertisers could learn from today?
A key to success that you could absolutely learn from in any era was his analysis of the consumer market that he was talking to. He had a unique and wonderfully perceptive understanding of the African American consumer market, but he also combined that with a broader understanding and analysis, and a real genius for advertising. He was able to really demonstrate the value of a respectful, uniquely targeted advertising program for African Americans, showing it’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s not just a smart thing to do, it’s an economically valuable thing to do.
Those in the business today can learn from Burrell by asking how they can connect what they know about traditional advertising, branding and marketing with an understanding of African American consumers. There are gaps and areas of opportunity for companies to reach into this market if they can overcome some of their own racial prejudices, or even preconceived notions about what motivates or moves African American consumers, or what engenders their loyalty.
Editor’s note: To reach Jason Chambers, call 217-333-5460; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chambers is the author of Madison Avenue and the Color Line: African Americans in the Advertising Industry and co-editor of Building the Black Metropolis: African American Entrepreneurship in Chicago.