Photo: Everett Collection.
After writing about Aunt Jemima for a previous Slashfood post, I became curious about the dark side – racial images used in food advertising – and it seems I'm not the only one. Texas A&M journalism professor Marilyn Kern-Foxworth wrote a whole book about blacks in advertising, entitled "Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus" (the guy on the Cream of Wheat box). But what's more amazing is that all three of these icons are still found on packaging today.
Okay, there is nothing inherently racist about putting black people on breakfast boxes, or else Wheaties would be in a lot of trouble. And I'm sure that the popularity of those icons, not to mention their products, had something to do with the diaspora of Southerners throughout the country, who associated freed slaves and faithful retainers with the comfort food of their ancestral home. The derogatory nature of some of these ads (a 1915 Cream of Wheat ad showed Uncle Sam looking at Rastus, bearing a bowl of cereal, and saying, "Well, you're helping some!") changed with the times.
It's just in the larger historical context – slavery, lynchings, beat-downs in Birmingham – that the enduring trend seems, uh, tasteless. (There is an online petition calling on B&G Foods, the owner of Cream of Wheat, to remove Rastus from its packaging.) I mean, Sambo's restaurant had to change its logo. And as Kern-Foxworth notes, the terms "Aunt" and "Uncle" are loaded, since Southerners used them to address older slaves who were denied the use of courtesy titles. ("They call me Mister Ben!") And while the model for Uncle Ben was a Chicago maitre d' who the owners of the Uncle Ben's Converted Rice Company considered a friend. But in the sixties, when the use of a lot of racial imagery was called into question, protestors and academics objected to the image of blacks as servants, rather than someone with a place at the table.
Blacks weren't the only ones being stereotyped in advertising, of course. The Frito Bandito enjoyed the wildest ride of any fictional Mexican since Jose Jimenez appeared on Ed Sullivan. The corn-chip confiscator was created in 1967 for Frito-Lay by the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, and later animated by the great Tex Avery, and voiced by the ubiquitous Mel Blanc. The company was initially taken aback by the protests of Mexican-Americans: "unshaven, unfriendly, and leering" one called him (think Treasure of the Sierra Madre). They even attempted a compromise: instead of having the comical muchacho steal people's corn chips, he just talked them out of them. (More like a white man.) Finally, in 1971, the company caved and retired the bandito and his sombrero.
Chun King Chinese food was the result of a stroke of marketing genius by Minnesotan Jeno Paulucci, who bought a Chinese food cannery in Duluth in 1947 and sought to create, and then satisfy, America's hunger for chow mein and chop suey. Early ads used pictures of coolies, complete with pigtails and pajamas, to hawk their wares until growing sensitivity to racial diversity (many Chinese-Americans did not dress like Hop Sing, it seems) caused them to cool it. By the 1960's, Chun King campaigns had a lighter touch: Legendary satirist Stan Freberg, for the 1962 "Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year," created a folk group called the Chun Kingston Trio that sang "Oh, Handle Me Down My Walking Chow Mein."
Native Americans got their share of disrespect, long before people called them Native Americans. I grew up hearing the Hamm's beer jingle, "From the Land of Sky Blue Water," to which a chorus chanted, in time to tom-toms, a paean to the suds "brewed for many moons." Again, it's really only in the context of alcoholism on Indian reservations that the imagery loses its luster. Later advertisements also used the tom-tom-and-war-chant motif, though with slightly more respect: Mazola, Corn Goodness aad from the seventies featured an earthy, sexy noble Indian woman extolling the virtue of the corn – "what we call maize" – used in Mazola margarine. (By the seventies, Indians were always noble; they got that way after we killed them.)
And lest this all sounds too PC for you, let's give a shout-out to the Red Stripe beer commercial in which a Jamaican ambassador gives a frat boy a bottle and watches him commence to skank. "Helping our white friends dance for over 70 years!" he says. Now that's the spirit of brotherhood.