Dairy brand Land O’Lakes is hardly alone in using a cultural stereotype as a mascot for generations—and it’s also not alone in its reluctance to speak publicly about it.
There’s also the ice cream bar known as Eskimo Pie. It was reportedly the brainchild of the proprietor of an Iowa ice cream parlor, who partnered with candy manufacturer Russell Stover in 1922 and trademarked the name, which, according to Smithsonian Magazine, was “meant to evoke the chilly north and the indigenous people who lived there.” Though there’s been corporate distancing from the mascot on the part of parent companies Nestle and Froneri, the logo remains on its packaging.
But arguably the most egregious examples of these mascots are the ones rooted in nostalgia for slavery, representing the Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat and Uncle Ben brands that all emerged between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act.
Aunt Jemima dates back to 1889, making it the oldest of these brands with problematic mascots. According to AuntJemima.com, the character was first portrayed in 1890 by Nancy Green, described by the brand as “a storyteller, cook and missionary worker.” (It doesn’t mention that she was born a slave in Kentucky in 1834.)
Aunt Jemima was later portrayed by another woman, Anna Robinson. Her backstory is unclear, but the brand notes that after traveling the country to promote Aunt Jemima starting in 1933, Robinson “is able to make enough money to provide for her children and buy a 22-room house, where she rents rooms to boarders.”
Other women followed. Actress Aylene Lewis was the last, portraying Aunt Jemima at a branded restaurant within Disneyland from 1957 to 1964, where she “[served] pancakes and [posed] for photos with guests.”
A blog post from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture explains that stereotypes about African Americans grew after the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott v. John Sandford, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that people of African descent were not U.S. citizens and had no right to sue in federal court.
According to the post, this legal precedent spurred caricatures of African Americans in popular culture, including the Mammy stereotype of the nurturing African American housekeeper, with which Aunt Jemima is now synonymous. It was first popularized in minstrel shows after the Civil War—in fact, Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, author of the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, wrote that Aunt Jemima hails from a song in a minstrel show that one of the brand’s founding partners saw in 1889.
Quaker Oats, which has owned Aunt Jemima since 1926, did not respond to interview requests.
Another that potentially falls under this umbrella is syrup brand Mrs. Butterworth’s, which was founded by CPG giant Unilever in 1961 and more recently came under the purview of packaged foods company Conagra. In an email, Dan Skinner, manager of brand communications, said, “We have never discussed Mrs. Butterworth’s race, religion or ethnicity, other than to say that she is ‘motherly’ and known the world over for her delicious syrup.”
She has, however, been compared to the Mammy stereotype—and actress Butterfly McQueen, who played the maid Prissy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, was reportedly the model for the original bottle. (Skinner said Conagra has nothing in its records that verifies McQueen’s role.)
Cream of Wheat
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