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
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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 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.

“I will debate anyone at that company about the value of something called Aunt Jemima in 2020,” he said. “This is not 1820 or 1920. When you talk about stereotyping and profiling, you can take the bandana off her head, but the historical significance of Aunt Jemima is terrible.”

For Gasby, it’s impossible to update a mascot like Aunt Jemima, and he doesn’t expect to see change.

“If they had real guts, they’d make a point,” Gasby said. “They’d take someone like B. Smith and upgrade the product and give out scholarships and make one of the few images of black women in food positive.”

That’s why he is developing his own line of products under the name B. Smith, who passed away in February at the age of 70, to continue her legacy.

Quaker did not respond to Adweek’s request for an interview.

Chairman Ben

Uncle Ben's chairman title is now gone, confirmed parent company Mars Food North America.

In 2007, food conglomerate Mars reportedly spent $20 million to reimagine rice brand spokesman Uncle Ben as the chairman of the company, instead of a subservient character with a bow tie The New York Times said was “evocative of servants and Pullman porters,” the African-American men—many who were former slaves—who served white passengers on railroad sleeping cars from the 1860s to the 1960s. (The Cream of Wheat chef, who has adorned boxes since 1893, plays on a similar stereotype.)

Consumers were able to tour a virtual office, which included Chairman Ben’s emails, voicemails, date book, executive memorandums and a portrait in a gold frame.

“That doesn’t seem authentic,” Reed said. “How do we go from house negro to now [chairman]? It’s total BS.”

Thirteen years later, Chairman Ben’s office and title are gone. Sara Schulte, external communications manager for Uncle Ben’s parent company, Mars Food North America, confirmed the assets no longer exist, but declined to discuss details “given the lapse of time.”

When asked about whether Mars has considered retiring the mascot, Schulte said in an email, “Uncle Ben’s is a beloved brand with a rich history.”

Gasby said Mars, like Quaker, is on autopilot here.

“Many brands have given up on keeping these fictitious characters fresh and relevant,” added Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at Pace University. “I think that’s why Land O’Lakes removed what was once relevant, as it no longer serves this symbol of purity and naturalness.”

But, Reed said, it is possible—even necessary—to update brand mascots, although it is a bigger challenge for brands that share names with their mascots.

That’s in part because the eponymous mascots come to symbolize and reinforce brand qualities, Chiagouris added.

Betty Crocker and the just-noticeable difference

While her backstory is admittedly innocuous, brands can look to baking brand Betty Crocker as an example of how to keep a mascot timely and relevant.

Like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker is a fictional character crafted in 1921 to personalize responses to consumer queries. Crocker was a recently retired company director. Betty sounded friendly.

The first official portrait of Crocker was painted in 1936, reportedly blending the facial features of the female staff at her parent company. She has been updated multiple times since, including a shift toward First Lady Jackie Kennedy in 1965 and then to more of an olive skin tone in 1996 that resulted from combining the images of 75 women who the brand felt embodied the spirit of Betty Crocker.

“Over the years, you saw hairstyles and makeup and stuff become more consistent in look and appearance with the times,” Chiagouris said.

These small changes over time are part of a psychological concept known as the just-noticeable difference, or “slight nuances of modernization,” as Reed called them. Over time, these changes can keep a mascot modern. They are also necessary because eventually younger consumers will not identify with old archetypes.

Reed pointed to growing up with Campbell’s Soup and his own nostalgic connection to red cans and Andy Warhol imagery.

“At some point, I die and my kids and my kids’ kids have no idea about the red can or any of these mascots, so the connection has to be rebuilt for younger consumers. So, conditional on that, if it has to be rebuilt, why not update and modernize?”

‘Connect with those who know the culture’

With mascots including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the Cream of Wheat chef, the issue isn’t merely modernity, and so the question remains if the brands, like Land O’Lakes, can remove the offensive element and retain something recognizable.

Reed said brands also have to take cultural sensitivity seriously and “connect with those who know the culture deeply and build connections to that community” to successfully update them.

“They will go to experts in that space—people in the culture of those potentially offensive stereotypes—and co-create the type of imagery that will be sociologically sensitive to the image that won’t offend,” Reed added.

Leah Salgado, deputy director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit designed to increase the visibility of Native Nations and peoples in American society, noted true representation is reflected in a brand like fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail. She talks about being native and creating fashion non-native women can also wear, but, Salgado said, “It comes from a place grounded in that community, not in which a company is profiting off a caricature of a specific minority group.”

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.