Traditional Brand Icons and the New Sensitivities of Race

Brand marketing is a simple science: Find what’s unique about your product, visualize and verbalize it, and execute consistently over many years. Two of America’s leading grocery shelf products for everyday basics feature African-Americans as their brand icons: The elegant butler Uncle Ben fronts his pre-cooked rice and the perpetually cheery Aunt Jemima promises perfect pancakes. They have been there for generations, but now not much longer. The uprising unleashed by police violence against and repeated killings of black Americans by white police officers will most likely mean changing the brand icons. Is it justified?

Olivera Stajic in the center left daily Der Standard has no doubts. “This is a long overdue step to end marketing based on visuals of oppression, prejudice and humiliation,” she wrote. Her conclusion is political: The propaganda picture of happy slaves was created to give institutional slavery a humane face, she analyses. The marketing people at Mars (Uncle Bens) and Pepsico (Jemima) likely just saw them as adding value to help sell tons of commodity carbohydrates at a decent mark-up. 

Making an Honest Living

American journalists have a somewhat more nuanced understanding. The marketing folks at Aunt Jemima’s have been tinkering with their icon for years. Tiffany Hsu in the New York Times traced attempts to soften the “black mammy” stereotype of the original Jemima of 1893. By the 1960s, she had lost her red bandana and by the 80s she had acquired stylish pearl earrings. More recently there were suggestions within the company that Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi should formally apologize for the brand’s troubled history. 

Senior executive Dominique Wilburn, an African-American, nixed the idea: She did not think that one of the few women of color figure-heading a major corporation should have to apologize for her predecessors’ mistakes. A more personal plea to save Aunt Jemima came from the family of Lillian Richard, who portrayed her as goodwill ambassador for decades. “There wasn’t a lot of jobs, especially for black women back in that time,” said Vera Harris, the family historian to KLTV in Texas. “She made an honest living out of it for a number of years. And the family is proud of what she did.” 

Special Skills of the Moors

In Austria, too, legendary brands are now in the BLM spotlight. Julius Meinl, the Republic’s most famous coffee, has used its Mohr (in English, Moor), a little dark boy in an over-sized oriental fez, to front the brand for nearly a hundred years. Coffee for the Austrians was Colonialware, an exotic import first brought to Vienna by the Turks during the long siege of the 1680s. The Mohr still decorates countless coffee cups in cafés across the city. 

Over the years, Meinl’s Mohr has also been modified; he is still dark skinned, but has lost his golden hoop earrings and acquired a more European profile. Periodic calls for his dismissal are now gathering pace again. 

Local activists have also targeted the Mohren Apotheke in Vienna’s city center – in this case, the name alone seems inflammatory enough. The logo on the storefront is a harmless pharmacists’ pestle and mortar, together with symbolic herb leaves and a drop of liquid. Teresa Marosi the Apothekerin has mounted a robust defense: 

“The name has museum quality” she told the tabloid Heute. “In the middle ages, the Moor (a North African, like Othello, ed.) was considered a healer.” She went on to explain that African and oriental medicine was well ahead of European when the store was founded in 1350 and that the naming was in appreciation of their superior skills. Marosi has laid out her position in bold white chalk on a blackboard outside her pharmacy in the Wipplingertraße. However her resistance was short-lived. Two days later photos in the boulevard press show her posing cheerfully outside her store with Afro-Austrian District Councilor Mireille Ngosso. “It’s simply the time to do it,” she said, announcing that the Apotheke will be re-named soon.

The Standard’s Olivera Stajic also cited the “clearly racist logo” of the Vorarlberg Mohren brewery, founded in 1784. The silhouetted black head with curly hair and protruding lips is indeed a stereotype. These are old images, familiar to Europeans since the Middle Ages, that come with unspoken power relationships. “It’s the fascination with the exotic, the other, but coming from the norm of white skin,” said Contemporary Historian Ingrid Böhler in an interview with ORF Radio Vorarlberg. It is a cliché, she says, that assumes inequality, a feeling of superiority and a power differential. 

Still, it seems unlikely that the founder of the brewery, a certain Josef Mohr, who adopted the silhouette (from an image of St. Mauritius) as his family emblem, intended a racist statement. The use of the image shows that he was certainly not ashamed of the association. 

What all of these black brand icons have in common is that their creators (at the time) felt they were adding value to the branded commodity. Black cooks made the best pancakes, Turks the best coffee and Arabs the best medicines. For commercial advantage, certainly, as with all brands. The association with the dark-skinned people depicted was, at the time, seen as a compliment to their skills – an honored history often lost in the current discussion.

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