Thoughts on marketing & racism

TV programs get to do clip shows all the time, so why can’t I? This originally ran in Brandweek on April 16, 2007

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DON IMUS and Uncle Ben. Two icons emblematic of a very strange moment in how Americans and the people who market to them think about race. Call it cultural schizophrenia—we denounce racism but still find it commercially appealing.

If you’re one of those radicals that feels a person’s worth is not determined by skin color you’ve got to be happy about the feces storm that hit Don “idiot-headed ho” Imus. Not only was he denounced but he got bit in the wallet, too. While Procter & Gamble and GM dropping his show was more costly, in many ways the worst news for I-man was when Miralus Healthcare, a.k.a. “Head-On,” pulled its ads. Once they left, pretty much the only sponsors remaining were bail-bond shops and “Smiling Bob.” I mean, the only thing worse than that would be getting canned by MSNBC and CBS. Oh, wait a minute.

While the Imus incident may have been nothing more than gross stupidity followed by a media feeding frenzy, there’s a lot bigger proof of change in the land.

Thirty-five years ago, when New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm ran for the presidency, her dual status as a woman and an African American made her into the ultimate political novelty act. Now we have Obama-mania. On the other side of the aisle, more than a few in the GOP still see Colin Powell as the party’s great black hope. Then there’s Massachusetts. The Bay State, which has had so many racial problems that its motto could be “Some of our best friends are black,” has seen fit to elect a governor with more melanin than most of the people who voted for him. All this is reverberating with marketers. Even Disney—ever a following indicator of cultural standards—is releasing a movie starring a black princess.

And yet.

The past month has also seen the return of Uncle Ben, a brand mascot with deep roots in that time and place when African Americans were not paid for their lifetime of employment. Actually it’s no longer “Uncle” Ben—Masterfoods USA dropped his honorific when it promoted him to CEO of his eponymous rice company. Unfortunately this brand retrofit didn’t give him a last name. Try calling your CEO by his first name. Now try to imagine doing so before you quit your job. While Ben’s promotion is certainly a good thing, it didn’t quite cover up his relationship to another uncle, one named Tom.

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Now Disney, ever the lagging barometer of cultural cues, is considering re-releasing the movie, Song of the South.

At a recent shareholders’ meeting Disney chairman Bob Iger said, “The question of Song of the South comes up periodically; in fact it was raised at last year’s annual meeting. And since that time we’ve decided to take a look at it again because we’ve had numerous requests about bringing it out.” In case you’re not up on film history, the 1946 movie tells the story of a young white boy who goes to live on his grandparents’ Georgia plantation and is charmed by the stories of beloved black servant Uncle Remus. It’s never been released on video and hasn’t been shown commercially in the U.S. since 1986.

It’s easy to understand from a fiscal point-of-view why some marketers would want to bring these characters back. Racist or not, they have a strong nostalgic pull. Consumers described Uncle Ben as having “a timeless element to him, we didn’t want to significantly change him,” Vincent Howell, president of the food division at Masterfoods USA and an African American, told The New York Times.

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The argument can be made that rebranding Ben or recalling Remus is a way to redeem them, but this is a bit of a stretch. Even our modern, deracinated Aunt Jemima—who’s now portrayed as Betty Crocker meets Oprah—still reeks of “de ol’ folks at home.” There are some roots that no amount of dye can cover up.

If marketers really insist on bringing these images back, they should begin with full disclosure and show where these characters came from, how they were used and why they’re being brought back. Barring that, then Ben, Jemima, Betty, Remus and that nameless guy on the Cream of Wheat box should follow Mr. Imus off the air.

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