Outrage Over Offensive Brands: Is It Justified?

  • February 2, 2021
More and more people are claiming that certain popular products are racist- but is this really the case?

In recent years, due in part to social reform movements like Black Lives Matter, certain companies have come under fire for having names or brand mascots that are deemed racist. These companies include Quaker Oats (for their Aunt Jemima brand), Mars Inc. (for their Uncle Ben brand), Nestle (for their Eskimo Pie brand), and many others. Throughout American history, there have been many brands like this — for instance, a rat poison invented in 1872 called Rough on Rats used a Chinese man as their mascot because of the racist stereotype that the Chinese ate rats — so this is not a new occurrence. What is new, however, is our heightened sensitivity to racism. The question is, are these companies really racist, or is this outrage misguided?

In order to truly understand whether these types of brands have the offensive overtones that many people claim, it first needs to be established what criteria they must fulfill to be racist. In other words, what makes something racist? Is it the very fact that it has to do with another race? Is it the intent behind it? Or is it the dominant impression that the audience gets after seeing the name or symbol? The idea that a brand can be racist for just having something to do with race seems unreasonable from the start. Racism is centered around a prejudice, judgement, or stereotype based on race (usually in a negative sense), not just the idea of race itself. Additionally, the implied reasoning behind that ideology is that a product related to race is controversial because some people may find it offensive. There are almost 400 million people in the US at this point in time, each one with a different set of values and a different set of topics that they find offensive. Realistically, it would be impossible to satisfy every person, and the only real solution would be to remove brand names and mascots all together (which obviously would cause companies to not be able to distinguish or advertise themselves).

However, the other two criteria seem viable. If a company makes a product and names it or advertises it using certain imagery that is meant to evoke feelings in the audience that are centered around racism, then the company is absolutely in the wrong and should not continue (morally speaking). If a company makes a product that isn’t meant to be racist, but is interpreted to be such, then there may not be a moral issue (since the company just wasn’t aware of how people would react), but in the interest of making a profit, they may want to change certain aspects of their brand, depending on how many people were upset by it.

Some may argue that, if there is anger about a company’s name or mascot, the company’s awareness of the issue makes them wrong for not addressing people’s concerns. Now that they know about the “harm” their advertising tactics have caused, they must (from a moral standpoint) make some changes in order for it to be said that they are doing the right thing. This may be true to some extent. The intent of a company when it creates a name or a logo is closely related to how the public will receive it. However, the whims of the public don’t have as significant of an impact on what is or isn’t right as the company’s intent does. For many people, this is common sense. If this weren’t the case, we would be forced to believe that, in the early 1800s, slavery wasn’t wrong (since most Americans didn’t find it morally reprehensible at the time), or that, in several Middle Eastern countries, gay marriage is immoral (due to the fact that laws that discriminate heavily against homosexuals are widely supported). So, if morality doesn’t come from the will of the majority, why should a moral duty to take a certain course of action arise out of the beliefs of the majority? Furthermore, what people value and what people find offensive is changing all the time, and it varies between each individual person. In the 1960s, the term “Negro” was considered a respectful term for African Americans, but nowadays, if someone described black people in that way, it would be considered very insulting. So for a company to make decisions based on this is not only illogical, but impractical. 

But maybe some would say that companies shouldn’t change based on all perceived offenses- just the ones that have caused a large amount of people to feel hurt in a significant way. After all, changing certain aspects of the brand in response to these types of complaints would avoid the risk of upsetting some members of the public. This reasoning is one-sided, however. Companies have logos and names for a reason: to distinguish themselves, and the brands that are in the midst of this controversy are very popular, so they have not only set themselves apart with these things but have made the name or image they chose become associated with positive things in the minds of many. Although in theory a company is more than just a title or a picture, in reality, when consumers are choosing what brand to buy from in a supermarket with dozens upon dozens of similar products lining the shelves, they make a decision based on the appearance and how familiar it is to them. Thus, the chance that these things could make some people feel uncomfortable does not justify a complete change in the company, which has a much greater probability of being detrimental to the business. That is not to say that companies can’t change their names or branding, or that those which already have are wrong, but it’s just not morally necessary for them to do so.

With that established, it becomes clear that there is no blanket determination that we can make on the racism of the products. Instead, it must be decided on more of a case by case basis. With the criteria presented before in mind, there seem to be three main types of products: products that have always been racist, products that were once racist but are no longer, and products that have never been racist. 

Some brands were created with racism in mind, and this aspect of the company’s name or mascot never evolved into anything else

The first type of brand is those that have always been racist in their advertising and in the ideas they use to represent their product. These brands typically have more blatantly racist imagery, and in terms of the criteria, they should be considered undoubtedly racist because they intentionally utilize prejudices their audience may have to help sell their product, and there is no other way to interpret their names or mascots besides through a racist lens. However, it is important to note that these products don’t exist in America very much anymore, because our long history of racial injustice has made us particularly sensitive to this matter. 

This can mean two things. For one, it can mean that these companies have ceased their operations, like the example referenced at the beginning of this article: Rough on Rats. As mentioned before, its mascot was a stereotypical Chinese person holding a rat, using the widely held belief that the Chinese ate rats to imply that their rat poison was just as good at killing rats as the Chinese were. This product isn’t around today, but it clearly attempted to use offensive ideas to promote itself. Another form these racist products can take is current products that exist in other countries. For instance, a brand of toothpaste created in the 1930s by Hong Kong company Hawley and Hazel called Darkie that featured an offensive depiction of a black man is still popular today. The name and the logo were meant to create the impression that, after using it, one’s teeth would become as white as a black person’s, and it has been widely used in China since its creation. In the 1980s, Colgate bought 50% of the company and renamed it Darlie, but in China, it is still known as 黑人牙膏, which roughly translates to “black man toothpaste”.

Other products advertised with racist ideas at first, but have since changed

In the previous products, there is no gray area: they evoke racist stereotypes in everyone who sees them, and the creators of the product made their product in the way they did for that very purpose. This means that, at some point in the past, stereotypes and racist ideas were intentionally used to sell the product, and the people who bought it were influenced by racist stereotypes, but in present-day, most people don’t associate it with a racist concept (including the people who make the product). 

The Aunt Jemima brand clearly exemplifies this idea. Invented in the late 1880s, the breakfast food company became very popular, and its mascot, a smiling black woman named Aunt Jemima, became well-known throughout the world. At the time that it first achieved such levels of popularity, it chose the logo of a black woman to perpetuate the “mammy” stereotype (which helped it sell its product). The “mammy” stereotype was created in the South during the times of slavery and was used to describe black slave women who cooked for white families and acted as a nanny for white children. By portraying their logo as a “mammy”, the company appealed to their largely white consumers who would associate mammies with good food and the days of sitting at the plantation house waiting to be served by the house slaves. It supported the idea that this was a fond memory, and backed this up by having Aunt Jemima smiling on every box of their product (which made it seem that slaves were happy to be serving whites). Many of their advertisements also featured Aunt Jemima saying things like “I’s in town honey!”, which mimicked and mocked the stereotypical African American dialect. Furthermore, although most people wouldn’t think anything of it at this point in time, the name “Aunt Jemima” came from a tradition of calling black people “Aunt” and “Uncle”, as opposed to “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, since many Southern whites didn’t think they deserved such official titles. 

But, with all this being said, the past history of Aunt Jemima does not determine whether it is racist now. When most people see Aunt Jemima’s smiling face on a bottle of syrup, they don’t think “Look, there’s evidence that slaves weren’t really oppressed!” or “That reminds me of the good old days, when slaves were serving food to white families!” Most people merely recognize the brand, and buy it based on its popularity and whether they’ve heard good things about it. The very fact that at least some of this information about the history of the product is surprising to most people is evidence of this. None of these stereotypes or ideas come to mind when we think of Aunt Jemima. Also (and perhaps more importantly), the brand has stopped all the racial advertising that it did in the 1800s and early 1900s. Aunt Jemima has merely become a name and a face, with no deeper meaning in the eyes of both consumers and the brand itself (since racist beliefs haven’t been used as a selling point for many decades). 

This is true for many products that have become controversial in recent years (besides just Aunt Jemima), another example being Miss Chiquita, a mascot which was first created in the 1940s to advertise Chiquita Bananas. The mascot was at first a banana wearing stereotypical clothing, like a fruit hat and frilly dresses. It later became a Latin American woman, which built off of the ideas the Latin Americans were “exotic” and primitive, and sexualized Latina women (which also played into the stereotype that they were all like that). Nowadays, most people, Chiquita barely uses the mascot in their advertisements, and most people who buy their bananas probably don’t even notice the image when selecting the product. So, because the intent of the company isn’t to promote racism, and the dominant impression of the majority of the people who buy the product isn’t that it is racist, it should not be considered racist today. This doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be more sensitive when dealing with these topics- they just shouldn’t be met with anger if they fail to do so. We shouldn’t try to suppress or forget about its racist past, but we also shouldn’t stop forging ahead because of the choices of the (long-dead) founders of the company. 

Many products reference race but aren’t tied to racism

Finally, there are certain companies that sell products that are related to race, but provide no judgement or racist message. Despite this fact, many have still been facing controversy, occurrences that are wholly unjustified. An example of such a product is Land O’Lakes Butter. Land O’Lakes has become widely recognized in part due to its unique logo, which features a Native American woman holding the butter, with scenes of nature behind her. Many have seen this as a racist image, saying that it represents cultural appropriation and that it promotes a white perspective on other cultures, so, in 2020, the company changed their logo to just depict the landscape, without anyone in the foreground. Of course, Land O’Lakes wasn’t wrong for making this change, but it also wasn’t something that was absolutely necessary. 

The Minnesota-based company was formed in the 1920s by a group of small farmers who wanted the logo of their company to represent Minnesota’s culture, history, and beauty. Because of this, they decided on a design with Minnesota scenery and a Native American sitting in the front. Minnesota culture was (and still is) heavily influenced and impacted by the large number of Natives who lived there, to the point where both cultures were intertwined. Therefore, the Native woman who has become synonymous with the company has just been used because they are a part of Minnesota. Some could say that they use a Native American to make it feel “natural”, which plays into some sort of stereotype about Natives, which could be a part of why they did it. But racism is defined by antagonism or prejudice, while the logo depicts a beautiful, pastoral, positive scene. And really, while the idea that Natives live off the land and embrace nature isn’t true for many modern Native Americans, it was true for many of the Native American tribes (typically the Dakota and the Ojibwe) who lived in Minnesota at the time. Proof of this comes from the artist who drew the logo we see nowadays, Patrick DesJarlait. He was a local Ojibwe artist who, when approached to redesign the image that represented the company, didn’t see it as an inaccuracy and instead saw it as a chance to promote a sense of Native American pride, remind people of the importance of both American and Native American heritage, and to portray the beauty of Native women. 

Eskimo Pie is another good example of brands that never were racist but are considered racist by some today. Eskimo Pie is a popular brand of chocolate-covered ice cream bar, and is considered offensive because of its use of the term “Eskimo”. The word was coined by European settlers that refers to the indigenous people who inhabited (and still inhabit) the northernmost regions of North America. Some claim that “Eskimo” means “eater of raw meat” in Cree (a Native American language), which they saw as having an implication of savageness and barbarism. This is not confirmed, as the etymology of the word is uncertain, but even if this were the case, no one who uses the word today uses it in that context. It isn’t considered a racial slur by most Americans: it’s just an easy way to refer to all the tribes in that area (since there are many). It also wasn’t considered a slur in the 1920s, when it was invented. At the time, the name was used as a reference to the fact that these groups of people lived in colder environments (since the food they were selling was a cold dessert). It could have just as easily been called “Scandinavian Pie” or “Siberian Pie”. Just as with Land O’Lakes, if you analyze it deeply, there could be some aspects of it that may be considered racist, but these factors are not in line with what the creators intended and what the consumers understood about the product, and never were. Ironically, the people who protested these brands are the ones who made it into an issue of race, not the companies.

There are many aspects of our society and culture that can be interpreted as racist by today’s hyper-vigilant standards. However, the fact that it can be interpreted as racist doesn’t mean that it is interpreted as racist, so a lot of these products aren’t even doing any harm. If a company’s advertising methods aren’t perpetuating or promoting racist ideas, then changing the name will be nothing but a superficial alteration (meaning that there isn’t a point to doing it). But even if the brand is promoting racist stereotypes, more needs to be done than just changing a name or a picture. The existence of these companies only proves that the underlying ideologies and beliefs are still present in our society, and a simple modification won’t stop this from being true. If social reformers really want to effect change, they need to focus on addressing the problems at a fundamental level. Instead of getting upset about trivial, surface-level manifestations of racism, they need to challenge the central ideas and values that are part of our culture that cause these things to happen. Ultimately, we shouldn’t be focused on companies when addressing racism in the world today: we should be focused on people.

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