Debating the Merits of Reviving
The Iconic Uncle Ben
Just saw [Barbara Lippert’s] Critique of the Uncle Ben’s character icon update [“Uncle Ben’s Problem,” April 9] and had to write to applaud your insights. What we see happen frequently with clients is the temptation to contemporize a venerable brand icon by somehow making it witty, hip or trendy. We call it “putting sunglasses on or turning the baseball hat around backwards.”
There are countless examples of classic, timeless characters who have undergone similar makeovers only to end up just feeling wrong to us for all the reasons you outline in your article—the deep emotional resonance these characters have with the audience. By ignoring that, or not working within that story framework, such endeavors feel sure to miss the mark.
There is some clever conceptual thinking in this new Uncle Ben’s campaign to be sure, and perhaps the subsequent advertising will go a step further to unpack some of the heavy baggage Uncle Ben carries as well. For example, how did he get from the rice field to the boardroom? What is the story here? Clearly there is one, and with a lot of emotion surrounding it.
It’s a common reaction for clients to want to avoid the inherent conflict and emotion in some of these highly charged icons (by subtly subtracting poundage, as you say in relation to Aunt Jemima, or removing a kerchief as if we didn’t notice). What marketers often fail to understand is that, in the world of story, conflict is a source of energy. If the conflict is embraced, the story can get a big boost of energy and authenticity. Otherwise, the energy tends to leak out.
Here’s hoping that Uncle Ben gets the respect he deserves, and in a way that realizes his potential as a true, dimensional character.
Business Development Manager
Barbara [Lippert] makes a slightly off-based assessment of the use of “Uncle.” Her claim is that Uncle was used because the honor of Mr. was denied. My understanding has been the opposite. Mr. was often a cold and formal term blacks used toward whites, while Uncle referred kinship and familial bonding.
Assistant Dean of Admission
Franklin & Marshall College
Defending the Advertising Industry in the ‘Real World’
I’d like to thank you for your thoughtful column on perceptions of advertising [Tim Arnold, “I Tell Ya, No Respect,” April 16]. Like many advertising professionals, I’ve become increasingly impatient with the constant attacks on our profession. As you point out, we can find egregious examples of ethical lapses in the advertising world. But to call into question the very existence of our business—one that helps people find goods and services they want and need—is just wrong. In my experience in what our students call “the real world” of advertising, the vast majority of the people I worked with are smart, kind, empathetic—and ethical.
I thought you might like to see our strategic communication departmental mission statement here at the Missouri School of Journalism: To be known as—and to be—the finest in the world at preparing highly motivated students to earn their place in the future as skilled and ethical professional communicators in the diverse marketplace of ideas. To be true to the founding vision of the school: a reverence for clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness. To produce contributing citizens of the world who can look back on their careers—and lives—with pride and the respectful regard of their peers.
Margaret E. Duffy, Ph.D.
Chair, Strategic Communication
Missouri School of Journalism
Letters: Debating the Merits of Reviewing
Debating the Merits of Reviving