Opinion | by Scott Hounsell
Last year, it was announced by Quaker Oats that they would be removing the name and image of Aunt Jemima from their syrup, engaging in a rebrand after the parent company determined, likely through some crazy focus group, that Aunt Jemima was racist. Well, not that she was racist, but that her image was based on a “racial stereotype” that did not accurately represent the interests of the black community. Now, while Quaker has made some strides in promises of contributions to the black community, I believe that their new rebrand is either completely tone-deaf or more likely a complete screw-up by brand professionals.
The brand, synonymous with pancake mix and syrup, will now be known as Pearl Milling Company. While obviously there’s something wildly ironic about taking the face of a black woman (no matter how racist the portrayal was) and replacing it with the name of a color synonymous with white, there’s more to this story that actually makes you cringe at how this got past actual brand managers.
The Pearl Milling Company was started in the late 1800s by two guys, Chris L. Rutt and Charles Underwood. Now, for the record, both Mr. Rutt and Mr. Underwood are white. You see, Mr. Rutt was a fan of minstrel shows, or super-racist portrayals of black people in a form of performance where white actors dress in blackface and act out super racist stereotypes for the audience. A white woman in black face, who portrayed a “Jemima” and sang a song about “Aunt Jemima” won over the heart — and apparently the marketing mind — of Rutt, who decided that a black woman named Aunt Jemima would be the face of their product. After failing to launch their product on their own, Rutt and Underwood sold their product to another company, The R.T. Davis Milling Company, who followed through with the branding idea and hired the actress and former slave, Nancy Green, to portray Aunt Jemima in their advertising. Nancy Green was hit by a car in Chicago years later and died poor. She is buried in a pauper’s grave.
Some may ask, what the problem is with removing such a racist portrayal of a black woman from the brand? Nothing, is the answer. It should be commended. What is a problem, though, is the complete lack of awareness Quaker had in naming the new brand as they did. Not only is “The Pearl Milling Company” the single most boring name of a company I have heard of in a long time, but it is also the company owned by the two racist white guys who put Aunt Jemima on the side of the box, to begin with. I mean, imagine the level of tone-deafness one must attain in order to think that a move like this was smart. While I understand the predicament that Quaker was in, in attempting to comply with an ever-evolving culture and in attempting to undo some racial stereotype, I can’t imagine that no one wanted to ask, “Wait, who owned the Pearl Milling Company?” While in the past, one would have to take a few-hour trip to the library to determine that answer, we now live in an age where those answers are given on demand.
This is potentially one of the greatest brand-biffs of all time. It is disastrously racist and almost comical.
Hey! I said almost! I almost feel bad for Quaker.
In fact, Quaker, here’s a free one. You should have named the brand “Nancy’s” after the poor actress who was used by these white men for the portrayal and kept the face instead of changing it from a garbage portrayal of stereotype. That would honor the actress’s memory. Also, 10% of all profits would go to The Nancy Green Foundation, an organization that would be started by Quaker to fund scholarships for women of color to acting and performance schools in order to increase the representation of women of color in media. Quaker would also commit to full college scholarships for any and all descendants of Green for the next three generations.
Author: Scott Hounsell