By Annie Gasparro and Jennifer Maloney
Mars Inc. is changing the name of Uncle Ben's rice to Ben's Original and dropping the image of a bow-tied Black man from its packaging, the latest company to change branding rooted in racist imagery.
Mars was one of a handful of food companies that said in June that they would review or change branding on products including Cream of Wheat, Mrs. Butterworth's and Eskimo Pie.
Changes to these supermarket staples come amid a national reckoning over racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and other Black people by police.
Other businesses also are rethinking products and imagery with potentially racist connotations. AT&T Inc.'s WarnerMedia pulled "Gone With the Wind" from its streaming platform for a time, Nascar has banned the Confederate battle flag and the Dixie Chicks, the platinum-selling country trio, dropped "Dixie" from their name.
PepsiCo Inc.'s Quaker Foods North America business has said it is retiring the Aunt Jemima brand name and eliminating the imagery of a smiling Black woman on its syrups and pancake mixes. The company hasn't disclosed the new name but said packaging changes would appear throughout the fourth quarter.
Mars said it surveyed thousands of consumers over the summer, many of whom said the term "uncle" was pejorative and the image on the brand's packaging, of a white-haired Black man in a black bow tie, was reminiscent of servitude.
"Times have changed," Mars Food Global President Fiona Dawson said in an interview. "Voices are being heard that weren't heard before."
She said that Mars considered other new names but that Ben's Original was the clear preference among focus groups and Mars employees because it recognized the brand's decades of history while moving it forward.
"Our consumers encouraged us not to lose Ben," she said.
Mars said the new logo for Ben's Original, with the familiar blue font against an orange background, would appear online immediately and on food packaging early next year.
The brand's origins reach back to 1937, when a Texas rice broker named Gordon L. Harwell created a company to market a parboiled rice he called Uncle Ben's Plantation Rice, according to "Food and Drink in American History," an encyclopedia by historian Andrew F. Smith. Mr. Harwell said he named it after a Black farmer in Houston called Uncle Ben, who was known for his high-quality rice.
During World War II, Mr. Harwell formed a partnership with businessman Forrest Mars to sell the rice to the U.S. Army. Beginning after the war, Uncle Ben's Converted Rice was marketed with the image of the man in the bow tie that remained on the label until this week. That man was Frank Brown, a Chicago maitre d' whom Mr. Harwell and Mr. Mars asked to pose for a portrait as the brand's mascot.
The Uncle Ben's brand, like Aunt Jemima and Cream of Wheat, used images perpetuating stereotypes of Black people in docile and servile roles, according to "Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," by Marilyn Kern-Foxworth.
The "uncle" honorific reflected a period when white Southerners used those terms because they didn't want to address Black people as "Mr." or "Mrs." Those three brands "have remained constant reminders of the subservient positions to which Blacks have been relegated over the years, " Ms. Kern-Foxworth writes in the book.
Mars changed Uncle Ben's over the years to address complaints that it perpetuated racist stereotypes. In 2007, the company launched a marketing campaign that designated the fictitious Uncle Ben as "chairman of the board." Some people said the marketing effort didn't address the brand's racist connotations.
Mars said that at that time, surveys of consumers showed they didn't take issue with the name or image. More recently, Ms. Dawson said, consumer sentiment has shifted.
"The point of time that we're in now calls for more radical change," Ms. Dawson said.
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