America's Love Affair with Stereotyped Brands

Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Chiquita Banana are household name brands with conflicted origins. The program looks at stereotyped characters in advertising, how they've evolved and how public perceptions of those characters have changed.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

For the next six months, NPR is looking at many of the fictional characters that have defined American life - from cartoons, movies, television, and more -in a series called In Character.

(Soundbite of In Character Montage)

Mr. MEL BLANC (Voiceover Artist): (As Bugs Bunny) What's up, Doc?

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH (Actor): (As Scarlett O'Hara) Fiddle-dee-dee, war, war, war.

Mr. CLAYTON MOORE (Actor): (As the Lone Ranger) Hi-ho, Silver.

Ms. MARY TYLER MOORE (Actor): (As Mary Richards) I really don't know why you're here, Mr. Grant.

COOKIE MONSTER: C is for cookie. That's good enough for me.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): (As Darth Vader) I am your father.

NEARY: Today, we are bringing you some characters from the world of advertising. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Chiquita Banana, their names are practically synonymous with foods we've had on our table since childhood. They're also full of cultural meaning, perpetuating and occasionally reinventing the stereotypes of people of color in your kitchen.

Last week, before Michel Martin headed down to South Carolina, she talked about these characters with two people who know a lot about this part of advertising's history. Patricia Turner is vice provost of undergraduate studies at U.C. Davis and a professor of African-American studies. Myra Mendible is a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. Michel led things off with a look back at one of the most familiar ads.

MICHEL MARTIN: Well, when you think of pancakes, few characters come to mind, I think, as readily as Aunt Jemima.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Aunt Jemima.

Unidentified Chorus (Singing) I wish I was in the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, look away, look away…

Unidentified Man #1: Smiling, happy Aunt Jemima. Famous for her secret recipe pancakes, waffles, and buckwheat. What's your happy thought for today?

AUNT JEMIMA: Well, Mr. (unintelligible) folks says you can't buy happiness, but you can earn it.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, Aunt Jemima. And I guess we all want to be happy.

MARTIN: I guess we do. Patricia Turner, how did Aunt Jemima come to be?

Prof. PATRICIA TURNER (Vice Provost of Undergraduate Studies, U.C. Davis): Aunt Jemima has her roots really in the minstrel era of the 19th century when dancing happy slaves were depicted on the stage, usually by whites in black face. And it was so popular that when advertisers at the end of the 19th century were looking for an icon for what was then a new convenience food - my students find it hard to believe that pancake mix qualifies as a convenience food - but they thought that they could latch onto this image of the mammy. And they hired a former slave to slough pancakes at a world fair, where they were hoping to sell the mix to grocery store chains.

MARTIN: And clearly that image persisted in that form for quite some time. In the commercial we just played was from, I think, in the 1940s. It's just interesting to me that there wasn't a resistance to that before then. Or maybe it shouldn't be surprising.

Prof. TURNER: Yeah, that was a very familiar image. It was less derogatory in some ways than another kind of image of black women as very slovenly and ill-kept and unable to take care of themselves. There were in pockets of the black community resistance to these images, but it really wasn't until the Civil Rights Movement that they were revisited.

MARTIN: Does Aunt Jemima have the same - what's the word I'm looking for - sort of sting to African-Americans as Uncle Tom does?

Prof. TURNER: I think Uncle Tom - and I think for the wrong reasons - has more of the sting than Aunt Jemima. And I think it really depends, Michel, on what time period you're talking about. You look at Aunt Jemima today, there's no calico. She's not as overweight as she used to be. But if you look at her in my grandmother's time, if you look at the way in which the company imagined her then with a - what was called a head rag, great, big toothy grin, very much overweight - that was one of the only images of black women that were available to young people at that time. As I said, there were some resistance and dissatisfaction around that.

MARTIN: As you pointed out, Aunt Jemima has had several makeovers through the decades. What form is she in now?

Prof. TURNER: She - I think that what the company is going for is the black Betty Crocker look, you know? That she could be a professional, perhaps someone even with a degree in food science or home economics, who has been in a laboratory crafting the perfect breakfast products for consumers as opposed to the much older image that this was her own special secret recipe that she came up with for the mass and the little children.

MARTIN: I think people probably don't remember this, but Aunt is controversial because there was resistance to giving people the dignified title of Ms. or Mrs., so Aunt was an honorific, right, instead of calling somebody Mr., Ms. Jemima.

Prof. TURNER: Yeah. It was sort of a continuum, so that at one end, you would have, you know, small, white children able to call an elderly black man, maybe a minister, by his first name. At the next step on he continuum would be some degree of dignity that might come with the aunt or the uncle. And then the final bestowing of dignity would be if he had any title at all, or he was called Mr. or Mrs., or reverend or doctor or whatever. So, that aunt or uncle was, in some circles, actually considered to be a better way of addressing an older person, at least then the first name, which was not really that uncommon.

MARTIN: And when talking with your students now, how do they see Aunt Jemima?

Prof. TURNER: It's very dependent upon their families. If their families have given them some kind of context for what Aunt Jemima used to look like and the clip that you played is perfect for those days, then my students do have some ambivalence about the image. There are other student who are unfamiliar with that past or unfamiliar with that history with Aunt Jemima. You know, from pancakes to politicians, there's no one black perspective on anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's certainly true. Let's move on to our next character. Now, some members of our audience might not remember the voice, but the jingle has to be one of the most famous. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of Chiquita Banana jingle)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say, bananas have to ripen in a certain way. When they're flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. You can put them in a salad. Fruits, no, not yet, my dear. At Greenwich(ph) way you're looking means that you are ripe for cooking.

Unidentified Male #1: How about me?

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) No, no. When you are fully ripe my dear, those little flecks of brown appear.

Unidentified Male #1: They…

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) They're most digestible my friend, delicious to from end to end.

MARTIN: Delicious from end to end. Chiquita's almost synonymous with bananas. I would think since - what, 1944. Myra Mendible…

Prof. MENDIBLE: Yes.

MARTIN: …can you tell us the inspiration for Chiquita. How did she come about?

Prof. MENDIBLE: Well, she was first created in 1944. She was drawn by the same artist who did the Campbell Soup Kids. And we can look at the broader situation in which she was created and that is the FDR's Good Neighbor policy. There was a real desire to kind of provide new images of Latin America that would be friendly images, that would show Latin Americans as happy people, you know, as a harmonious place, as good neighbors for the United States, especially during the war effort. And so, Chiquita Banana really fit right in with that. You have the female figure, who was attractive, you know, who would dance and sing and provide a kind of friendly face, not only for relationships between Latin America and the United States, but also corporate relationships. Because Chiquita Banana had a long history and in many ways, a very negative history in Central America.

MARTIN: Tell me.

Prof. MENDIBLE: Well, Chiquita Banana really was engaged in numerous practices that were somewhat questionable. Ultimately, they were caught for tax evasion and bribery, and other such things. And even recently, they were just fined $25 million for paying terrorists basically, for security protection in Columbia. So, there have been this long history of, you know, not seeing in Central America - not seeing Chiquita Banana as a company that was treating the workers fairly and, you know, also the use of pesticides. There are numerous things that came up throughout their history.

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE and Michel Martin. And We're talking about Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Chiquita Banana with professors Myra Mendible and Patricia Turner.

As a proxy for an ethnic group, how do you experience it? Because, I mean, it doesn't have some of the things you would be expecting from that - not a heavy accent, you know, not overly sexualized or any of the other sort of stereotypes that I think of. You know, Latinas or Latino men have had to sort of live with. But how do people experience Chiquita Banana as perhaps the, you know, a proxy for a region or for a group of folks?

Prof. MENDIBLE: Well, first of all - I mean, there have been changes when she first came out. First of all, she was a banana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MENDIBLE: And then she actually is depicted as a banana until 1987. And…

MARTIN: Okay, that's a good point, I should mention that the advertisement that we heard, she is a dancing banana.

Prof. MENDIBLE: Yeah, because later, she becomes a female. But even during that time, even in the 1940s, they actually did hire Latinos who would represent a Chiquita Banana at different functions and in personal appearances. But, really, what this plays up to is, some of the stereotypes that had been with Latinos for a very long time and that is - you say they're not sexualized…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENDIBLE: …but if you notice, the outfit of the Chiquita Banana for the time, you know, she is topless and she is wearing a kind off low-cut kind of skirt. So…

MARTIN: Well, I got to be honest with you, because what I was looking at was the banana. I really didn't see her as having much of an outfit, but…

Prof. MENDIBLE: Right, right. Well, right.

MARTIN: But I see, when she took human form, she got a little more risqué.

Prof. MENDIBLE: Right, right.

MARTIN: I see, Okay.

Prof. MENDIBLE: And you know, just this image of the dancing, kind of frivolous, apolitical female not only does it kind of go along with many of the stereotypes of the, you know, the hot Latin woman who just loves to dance and sing, and doesn't have a serious thought in her brain. It goes along with that. But I think it also goes along with the idea of the woman as kind of representative of the nation. And in this case, the continent of Latin America or South America or where, you know, women are welcoming, you know, there's this, the bounty of resources that are available and, you know, and I think that that's the kind of stereotype that it really perpetuates.

MARTIN: We still have one more character to introduce.

(Soundbite of Uncle Ben advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: Uncle Ben's new recipe chili con carne. But when you fancy see a Mexican to dinner, invite the world to dinner with Uncle Ben's sauces.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: There's a lot going on there, but let's start at the beginning. Uncle Ben has recently had a marketing makeover. He was always a silent image, the kindly, smiling servant with a bowtie. They can see it now, Patricia Turner, is that he is a chairman of the company.

Prof. TURNER: he's moved on up.

MARTIN: So, where did Uncle Ben come from, Patricia Turner?

Prof. TURNER: He's a later incarnation than Aunt Jemima. We get this figure with this product in the 1940s, but it's based on the image of the smiling black male, domestic servant in a nice uniform, either a hotel matre d, in a household, wealthy household that could afford butlers, or the image of the porters that was really prominent from the railroad cars, in the first class cars. They were figures that looked very much like Uncle Ben, men who looked very much like Uncle Ben, who took care of the first class customers. And all of those images are what's being worked on with Uncle Ben.

MARTIN: How do you think that Uncle Ben's promotion is going over with consumers? Do you think again, sort of asking your students. Do they know that he's chairman of the board now? Chairman of the company?

Prof. TURNER: I'm not sure that was a marketing strategy that worked really well for the company. I don't know that there's a great deal of familiarity with the shift or with the change. A lot of people have heard more about it from news stories about the change rather than the actual advertisements. So, it may not be doing everything for the company that they hoped.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you how you think students who are not from the backgrounds represented by these brands react when people discuss them in the way that you are. With Myra, for example, students when you know, grew up with Chiquita Banana, might have hear the jingle, I think it's kind of cute. And when you point out that this is actually - you know, you're not in love with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How do people feel about it?

Prof. MENDIBLE: They often will be very defensive about it. I mean, we cherish some of these little icons, we grow up with them, you know? Donald Duck's parrot pal, Jose, you know, he's a dimwit, but he's cute. And so, we enjoy it, or the Frito Bandito, or the Chiquita Banana. These are all icons that give us a kind of comforting sense of the world, you know? All these friendly little creatures that are there to serve us and to provide us with sustenance and good things to eat. So, I think a lot of people are very defensive, if you say that there's any negative implications to the repeated uses of these stereotypes.

MARTIN: Do you think, Patricia, that for example, people still draw conclusions about ethnic groups from these advertising symbols? For example, do you think your students who are not African-American draw conclusions about the happiness of African-Americans to serve, based on these icons of advertising?

Prof. TURNER: I think that contemporary students are getting advertising with African-Americans included in it in multiple products and multiple kinds of ways. So it's very different for a student in 2008 than a student in 1988 or 1978. And two students in 2008 - you know, remember, they're board - you know, if we're talking about freshman board, 18 years ago. I mean, Bill Cosby was already in reruns by then. So, they've grown up in a very different world that I would add to Myra's point, which I completely agree with about the defensiveness. When you talk about the time periods in which these were the only images of people of color that were out there, our students sort of can act as though that was, you know, simultaneously, the Peloponnesian wars or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TURNER: That was so long ago to that. The 1940s were just as ancient history. And you really have to do a lot of work in what we write and in the classroom, and the way we talk about this, to let them know - you know, your peers, parents and grandparents grew up in this world. This isn't as old as you think and this very, very real for them.

MARTIN: If each of you could pick another made up character out of American life, to know more about, who would it be?

Prof. TURNER: You know, the first thing that came to my mind and maybe I misinterpreted your question as who I wish people knew more about it…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TURNER: …and we rarely talk about it, is Uncle Tom. I think he's one of the most misunderstood characters in American literature and I think that the slur that is Uncle Tom really misrepresents what's going on, on in the novel and I'm not meaning to particularly defend Harriet Beecher Stowe, but it's just so interesting to me how this whole slur developed.

MARTIN: Myra?

Prof. MENDIBLE: Well, I think that people should know more about the Frito Bandito character. They should know a little bit about the roots of that image, of the bandit and to recognize that it had certain political implications, and refers to historical events. And I think that it still shapes some of the attitudes towards Mexican-Americans in America today.

MARTIN: Myra Mendible is a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. She joined us by phone from her office. We were also joined by Patricia Turner. She's vice-provost of undergraduate studies at U.C. Davis and a professor of African-American studies. And she joined us from Capitol Public Radio in Sacramento, California. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Prof. MENDIBLE: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Prof. TURNER: Yeah, thanks. This has been fun.

NEARY: And our thanks to Michel Martin, who conducted that interview last week, before her trip down to South Carolina.

Perhaps you've heard In Character segments on other NPR programs and have an idea of your own. Well, now's your chance to tell us what great American characters inspire you. Nominate your favorites on our In Character blog. We may put your suggestion on the radio. Go to npr.org/tellmemore for a link to the In Character series.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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