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Explained: How George Floyd protests have forced a reckoning among top US brands

Since the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests across the world have sparked renewed debates on racism in everyday life, including the use of offensive symbols and imagery in the corporate arena.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
June 20, 2020 3:59:31 pm
Aunt-Jemima, george floyd protests, racism debate, US companies rebranded Boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake batter are displayed on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo: Ashley Landis)

Over the past week, iconic American labels, including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Eskimo Pie, and Cream of Wheat, have said they would rebrand their symbols that have been criticised for having racist undertones. Since the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests across the world have sparked renewed debates on racism in everyday life, including the use of offensive symbols and imagery in the corporate arena.

On Wednesday, PepsiCo became the first large company to set off the course correction, as it bid farewell to the name and logo of its highly popular ‘Aunt Jemima’ pancake mix and syrup. Quaker Foods North America, the PepsiCo-owned maker of the product, said, “We recognise Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realise those changes are not enough.”

Following suit, the manufacturers of other ubiquitous brands such as Uncle Ben’s rice, Mrs Butterworth’s syrup, Cream of Wheat porridge, and Eskimo Pie ice creams have also promised a rethink into their branding policies over the week.

Why the Aunt Jemima change matters

The 131-year-old brand, a market leader in its segment, has for years been criticised for promoting racial stereotypes about black people. Its name has been derived from the 19th-century song “Old Aunt Jemima”, performed in minstrel shows where white actors often wore blackface.

The brand’s first mascot perpetuated the “mammy” stereotype of a black woman who is content serving her white enslavers. In 1890, Nancy Green, a woman born into slavery, became the first face of Aunt Jemima. In the United States, slavery was legal until 1865.

For many years, critics lambasted the brand’s imagery for portraying slaves as happy and content while being loyal to their owners, thus obscuring the brutal conditions in which enslaved people lived.

Over the decades, the brand’s manufacturers also moved towards making its Aunt Jemima character less offensive. In 1968, the company phased out the kerchief on its head with a plaid headband. In 1989, it added a lace collar and pearl earrings.

Then in June this year, after soaring racial tensions following the death of George Floyd, Aunt Jemima again became an important point of discussion about race. Earlier this week, the American singer Kirby posted a video in social media titled “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast” criticising the brand, which went viral.

Now, Quaker Oats has said that the Aunt Jemima name would be entirely dropped, and its packaging would also be changed. PepsiCo has also said that it would pledge $400 million over five years “to lift up black communities and increase black representation at PepsiCo,” as per an AP report.

Other landmark redemptions

Uncle Ben’s rice, which has an African American rice farmer from Texas as its logo, has also promised change. Mars, the brand’s owner, said that it had “a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices”, adding that “one way we can do this is by evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.”

Aunt-Jemima, george floyd protests, racism debate, US companies rebranded Cream of Wheat packaging along with Uncle Ben’s rice is shown on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo: Rogelio V. Solis)

Another major brand that has promised a review is Mrs Butterworth’s syrup. Many had taken offence over the shape of the bottle in which the syrup was packaged, which like Aunt Jemima, also invoked the “mammy” stereotype. The company said that it was starting “a complete brand and packaging review” while acknowledging that the bottle, meant to portray a “loving grandmother”, could “be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.”

Cream of Wheat, a porridge mix, has also promised a rethink into its over 120-year-old mascot– a smiling black chef who is seen as a caricature of a happy and content enslaved person, also derived from minstrel performances.

The ice-cream brand Eskimo Pie would also be changing its name and branding. Its packaging features an “Eskimo” character– a racially derogatory term used for referring to Inuit and Yupik people in Alaska. A company spokeswoman said, “We are committed to being a part of the solution on racial equality, and recognize the term is derogatory. This move is part of a larger review to ensure our company and brands reflect our people values.”

In April this year, popular butter brand Land O’Lakes changed its packaging after nearly a century, removing the iconic figure of a Native American woman “Mia” from its products.

In recent weeks, there have been renewed calls to remove Confederate symbols from the United States and the iconic yet controversial 1939 film ‘Gone with the Wind’ has also been taken off its digital platform.

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