Both hot cereal maker Cream of Wheat and syrup brand Mrs. Butterworth’s have confirmed they’ve initiated packaging reviews in the wake of PepsiCo’s bombshell announcement on Wednesday that it would retire Aunt Jemima after 131 years.
That was quickly followed on Wednesday by a statement from Uncle Ben’s, which said it is “evolving the visual brand identity.” A spokesperson said the brand is “evaluating all possibilities,” so it is unclear if the name Uncle Ben will remain.
Once again, this marks a dramatic shift for these brands’ corporate parent companies, who just two months ago had little or no comment on the mascots’ roots in nostalgia for slavery.
It comes in the midst of continued protests in the U.S. and growing support of the Black Lives Matter movement. A recent survey from nonpartisan think tank Pew shows two-thirds of U.S. adults now support the movement, with nearly 40% saying they strongly support it.
Cream of Wheat parent B&G Foods, which has owned the brand since 2007, did not respond to multiple interview requests in April about the chef that has appeared on its packaging since 1893. (Aunt Jemima predates him by only four years.)
Little information about the chef is available from the brand itself. In a blog post, however, Kirsten Delegard, co-director of the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota, said Cream of Wheat’s founder designed the packaging with a former slave he called “Rastus” after characters in the Uncle Remus books, which were first published in 1880.
According to a December 2000 essay by David Pilgrim, professor of sociology at Ferris State University, Cream of Wheat founder Emery Mapes, a former printer, found the image of a Black chef among his old printing blocks. This logo was used until the 1920s, when Mapes paid a Chicago waiter $5 to pose as the new chef.
One hundred years later, this image remains as arguably the most enduring example of the Uncle Tom stereotype in marketing. In his essay, Pilgrim writes that the caricature was born in defense of slavery: “How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if black servants, males (Toms) and females (Mammies), were contented and loyal?”
Then, hours after Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, B&G Foods released a statement.
“We understand there are concerns regarding the chef image, and we are committed to evaluating our packaging and will proactively take steps to ensure that we and our brands do not inadvertently contribute to systemic racism,” it said. “B&G Foods unequivocally stands against prejudice and injustice of any kind.”
Similarly, Dan Skinner, manager of brand communications at Mrs. Butterworth’s parent Conagra, previously told Adweek, “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 with which Aunt Jemima is also synonymous. Actress Butterfly McQueen, who played the slave Prissy in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind, was reportedly the model for the original Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle, though Skinner said Conagra has nothing in its records that verifies McQueen’s role.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Skinner confirmed Mrs. Butterworth’s has initiated “a complete brand and packaging review.”
“The Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother. We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities, and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking and unacceptable that racism and racial injustices exist around the world. We will be part of the solution.”
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