Shattering the converted rice ceiling

Just imagine, for a moment, that Uncle Ben, the rice guy, got a promotion - to chairman of the board. A little weird, no? But ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, which has a long history of going for the unconventional, figured that it made all the sense in the world, so with the blessing of its client, food giant Mars, it's launching a new campaign that features Ben (no last name) as an accomplished businessman with a fancy office, busy schedule and extensive travel itinerary. He also offers "grains of wisdom" about rice and life. Vincent Howell, the Mars executive handling Ben, put it this way to the NYT: "What's powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position of prominence and authority. As an African-American, he makes me feel so proud." Er, OK, although Luke Visconti, who follows diversity in the workplace, said "it still has a very high cringe factor."

Before the civil rights movement took hold, marketers of food and household products often used racial and ethnic stereotypes in creating brand characters and mascots. In addition to Uncle Ben, there was Aunt Jemima, who sold pancake mix in ads that sometimes had her exclaiming, “Tempt yo’ appetite;” a grinning black chef named Rastus, who represented Cream of Wheat hot cereal; the Gold Dust Twins, a pair of black urchins who peddled a soap powder for Lever Brothers; the Frito Bandito, who spoke in an exaggerated Mexican accent; and characters selling powdered drink mixes for Pillsbury under names like Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry — the latter baring buck teeth


As a result, most of those polarizing ad characters were banished when marketers — becoming more sensitive to the changing attitudes of consumers — realized they were no longer appropriate. A handful like Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and the Cream of Wheat chef were redesigned and kept on, but in the unusual status of silent spokescharacters, removed from ads and reduced to staring mutely from packages.

Joe Shands, a creative director at TBWA/Chiat/Day in Playa del Rey, said Ben's promotion is "reflective of a man with great wisdom who has done great things."

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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