There’s No Graceful Way to Update a Controversial Mascot

And brands certainly don't want to talk about it

Mascots with racial and ethnic stereotypes are alive and well.
Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, Miss Chiquita, Eskimo Pie, Cream of Wheat

Key insights:

Mascots help personify brands and serve as recognizable ambassadors on store shelves. But what happens when those brand faces have a troubled history?

Land O’Lakes is a good example: In April, the brand quietly dropped the indigenous woman on its packaging in advance of its 100th anniversary.

Mascots have been pulled in the past: Corn chip brand Fritos retired its Frito Bandito in 1971, just four years after its 1967 debut, following complaints from Mexican-American advocacy groups. (Parent company Frito-Lay did not respond to requests for comment.)

But others, like Land O’Lakes, have endured for generations.

Take, for example, Miss Chiquita, which became the face of the banana brand in 1944 and was transformed into a “vibrant Latin woman” in 1987. (Chiquita did not respond to a request for comment.)

Nestle bought Eskimo Pie in 1991.

There’s also the ice cream bar known as Eskimo Pie. Smithsonian Magazine said the name, which was trademarked in 1922, was “meant to evoke the chilly north and the indigenous people who lived there.”

It appears Nestle, which bought Eskimo Pie in 1991, has attempted to distance itself from the controversial mascot on its website, but the logo remains on packaging.

Noelle Perillo, manager of brand public relations at Nestle, declined comment, as Nestle USA’s ice cream division was sold to U.K. ice cream manufacturer Froneri in January. Froneri did not respond.

But arguably the most egregious examples hail from brands using characters rooted in nostalgia for slavery. Those mascots—Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben—emerged between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act. The brands behind them have attempted updates over the years, but their legacies remain rooted in an ugly chapter of American history. And, like Land O’Lakes, Chiquita and Eskimo Pie, the brands aren’t talking about them, so it’s unclear if there will ever be a reckoning or if the status quo will remain for generations more.

‘A contemporary look’

Quaker Oats has made changes to Aunt Jemima over the years.

Aunt Jemima’s parent, Quaker Oats, has made tweaks over the years. In 1989, for example, she was given “a contemporary look [with] pearl earrings and a lace collar.” That’s the same time the brand dropped her headscarf, Maurice Manring, author of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, told NPR. (According to Manring, she hasn’t spoken in brand promotions since the 1960s.)

Despite the changes, the mascot remains synonymous with the mammy stereotype popularized in minstrel shows after the Civil War, writes Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, author of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

In 2017, Dan Gasby, partner of restaurateur, cookbook author and lifestyle guru B. Smith, petitioned Quaker parent PepsiCo to eliminate the brand name and mascot in a Change.org campaign called Set Her Free.

“Their marketing is non-marketing,” he said, because Quaker can’t actively advertise this antiquated image beyond point-of-sale promotions in-store.

“The problem in America is so many racist and stereotypic images from the past have been ingrained as if it’s okay,” he added.

Frito Bandito was quickly pulled because the character was so over the top, said Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“Aunt Jemima you could figure out a way to rationalize,” Reed said. “She has motherly aspects, there’s some positive aspects you could pull out if you wanted to morally rationalize her, but less so with a character like Frito Bandito … [especially] compared to something innocuous like Charlie the Tuna or Chester Cheetah.”

With Aunt Jemima, PepsiCo ultimately sidestepped the issue, Gasby said, saying Aunt Jemima was wholesome and they didn’t feel the need to change the brand.

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