tries to update Uncle Ben by making him ‘chairman’ of company By
New York Times
(March 30, 2007) A racially charged advertising character, who for decades
has been relegated to a minor role in the marketing of the products that
still carry his name, is taking center stage in a campaign that gives him
a makeover — Madison Avenue style — by promoting him to chairman of the
The character is Uncle Ben, the symbol for more than 60 years of the Uncle
Ben’s line of rices and side dishes now sold by the food giant Mars. The
challenges confronting Mars in reviving a character as racially fraught as
Uncle Ben were evidenced in the reactions of experts to a redesigned Web
site (unclebens.com), which went live this week.
“This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe
factor,” said Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark,
which publishes a magazine and Web site devoted to diversity in the
“There’s a lot of baggage associated with the image,” Mr. Visconti said,
which the makeover “is glossing over.”
Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an
accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an
extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company
calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life. A crucial aspect of his
biography remains the same, though: He has no last name.
Vincent Howell, president for the food division of the Masterfoods USA
unit of Mars, said that because consumers described Uncle Ben as having “a
timeless element to him, we didn’t want to significantly change him.”
“What’s powerful to me is to show an African-American icon in a position
of prominence and authority,” Mr. Howell said. “As an African-American, he
makes me feel so proud.”
The previous reluctance to feature Uncle Ben prominently in ads stood in
stark contrast to the way other human characters like Orville Redenbacher
and Colonel Sanders personify their products. That reticence can be traced
to the contentious history of Uncle Ben as the black face of a white
company, wearing a bow tie evocative of servants and Pullman
porters and bearing a title reflecting how white Southerners once used
“uncle” and “aunt” as honorifics for older blacks because they refused to
say “Mr.” and “Mrs.”
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.
“The only time blacks were put into ads was when they were athletic,
subservient or entertainers,” said Marilyn Kern Foxworth, the author of
“Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising Yesterday, Today
After the start of the civil rights movement, such characters became
“lightning rods” in a period when consumers started to want “images our
children could look up to and emulate,” Ms. Kern Foxworth said.
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.
Times, however, change, as evidenced by real-life figures as disparate as
Wally Amos, the founder of Famous Amos cookies; Oprah Winfrey; and Senator
Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is running for president. In
advertising, there are now black authority figures serving as spokesmen in
multimillion-dollar campaigns, like Dennis Haysbert, for Allstate, and
James Earl Jones, for Verizon.
That helped executives at Masterfoods and its advertising agency, TBWA/Chiat/Day,
consider the risky step of reviving the character.
“There’s no doubt we realized we had a very powerful asset we were not
using strongly enough,” Mr. Howell said.
So about 18 months ago, the company and agency decided “to reach out to
our consumers” and gauge attitudes toward Uncle Ben, Mr. Howell said.
There were no negative responses or references to the stereotyped aspects
of the character, he said. Rather, the consumers “focused on positive
images, quality, warmth, timelessness,” he added, and “the legend of Uncle
That encouraged the idea that “we could bring him to life,” Mr. Howell
said, sensitive to “the sorts of concerns that are important to me as an
Joe Shands, a creative director at the Playa del Rey, Calif., office of TBWA/Chiat/Day,
said the freedom to use the character to sell the Uncle Ben’s brand was a
welcome change from the years when “all we’ve had to work with is a
portrait.” “We wanted to know if there was something there we could
utilize to talk about new products, existing products, the values of the
company,” Mr. Shands said, adding that both black and white consumers
described the character as someone “they know and love.”
“Through the magic of marketing, we’ve made him the chairman,” Mr. Shands
said. Uncle Ben’s office, he said, is “reflective of a man with great
wisdom who has done great things.”
Magazine ads in the campaign, which carries the theme “Ben knows best,”
present a painting of the character in a gold frame with the chairman’s
title affixed on a plaque.
The painting is also on display on the home page of the redesigned Web
site, which offers a virtual tour of Ben’s office. Visitors can browse
through his e-mail messages, examine his datebook and read his executive
“It’s important consumers begin to hear from Uncle Ben,” said Mr. Howell
of Masterfoods, who is based in Los Angeles.
Despite the character’s impressive new credentials, some advertising
executives expressed skepticism that the campaign could avoid negative
The ads are “asking us to make the leap from Uncle Ben being someone who
looks like a butler to overnight being a chairman of the board,” Ms. Kern
Foxworth said. “It does not work for me.”
“I applaud them for the effort and trying to move forward,” she added, but
the decision to keep the same portrait of Uncle Ben, bow tie and all, also
dismayed her because “they’re trying so hard to hold onto something I’m
trying so hard to get rid of.”
Howard Buford, chief executive at Prime Access in New York, an agency
specializing in multicultural campaigns, said he gave the campaign’s
creators some credit. “It’s potentially a very creative way to handle the
baggage of old racial stereotypes as advertising icons,” he said, but
“it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and make it ring true.”
For instance, Mr. Buford said, noting all the “Ben” references in the ads,
“Rarely do you have someone of that stature addressed by his first name” —
and minus any signs of a surname.
Mr. Buford, who is a real-life black leader of a company, likened the
promotion of Uncle Ben to the abrupt plot twists on TV series like
“Benson” and “Designing Women,” when black characters in subservient roles
one season became professionals the next.
“It’s nice that now, for the 21st century, they’re saying this icon can
‘own’ a company,” Mr. Buford said, “but they’re going to have to make him
a whole person.”
Mr. Visconti of Diversity Inc. Media struck a similar chord. He said he
would have turned Ben’s office into “a learning experience,” furnishing it
with, for example, books by Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.
“I’ve never been in the office of African-Americans of this era who didn’t
have something in their office showing what it took to get them there,”
Mr. Visconti said.
The actual biography of Uncle Ben is at variance with his fanciful new
identity. According to Ms. Kern Foxworth’s book and other reference
materials, there was a Ben — no surname survives — who was a Houston rice
farmer renowned for the quality of his crops. During World War II, Gordon
L. Harwell, a Texas food broker, supplied to the armed forces a special
kind of white rice, cooked to preserve the nutrients, under the brand name
In 1946, Mr. Harwell had dinner with a friend (or business partner) in
Chicago (or Houston) and decided that a portrait of the maitre d’hotel of
the restaurant, Frank Brown, could represent the brand, which was renamed
Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice as it was being introduced to the consumer
In coming months, visitors to the Uncle Ben’s Web site will be able to
discover new elements of the character, Mr. Howell said, like full-body
digital versions of Uncle Ben and voice mail messages. The Web site was
designed by an agency, Tequila, that is a sibling of TBWA/Chiat/Day, and
the budget for the campaign, print and online, is estimated at $20
million. TBWA/Chiat/Day is part of the TBWA Worldwide unit of the Omnicom
If the makeover for Uncle Ben is deemed successful, could there be similar
changes in store for other racially charged characters?
Last month, the Cream of Wheat chef got a new owner when B&G Foods
completed a $200 million deal to buy his brand, and its companion, Cream
of Rice, from Kraft Foods.
“We’re doing consumer focus work right now to understand how important the
character is,” said David L. Wenner, chief executive at B&G in Parsippany,
If any changes were to be made, “you would need to be very careful,” he
added, “and you would want to do it with dignity.”
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