Mars Food announced this week that the Uncle Ben’s line of rice products will soon rebrand as “Ben’s Original,” following renewed criticism that the old image perpetuated racial stereotypes.
As the nation reckons with systemic racism, following months of protest, several brands have agreed to update old, insensitive imagery. Earlier this year, PepsiCo announced it would retired the Aunt Jemima pancake brand. That brand faced accusations of spreading the old stereotype of a submissive Black woman.
Uncle Ben’s, meanwhile, features the image of a smiling old Black man in a bowtie. On Wednesday, Mars Food said it would remove the image by 2021.
In June, as protests seized the nation following the death of George Floyd, Mars committed to reviewing its brands. The rice product is, according to its website, inspired by the legendary Uncle Ben. The apocryphal farmer supposedly drew fame in Texas for his high quality rice. But the face that has appeared on the product’s packaging since the 1940s belongs to one Frank Brown. Brown, the headwaiter of an exclusive Chicago restaurant, agreed to pose for the picture some eighty years ago.
But Uncle Ben’s smiling visage has unnerved some consumers for years. Even the term “uncle” seems to harken back to an old convention of the American South. Historically, white people would use the terms “uncle” or “aunt” to refer to older Black people, as opposed to the more formal “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
Furthermore, the mascot himself seems to endorse a racist stereotype of happy subservience.
Responding to such criticism in 2007, Mars Food announced that it “promoted” Uncle Ben from server to chairman of the company. As part of the marketing ploy, they gave Uncle Ben a busy schedule, a fancy office, and the slogan “Ben Knows Best.” The move did little to placate critics.
But in 2020, as the country has grown more sympathetic to the cause of racial justice, Mars Food is doing away with the brand completely. The company’s global president of sales, Fiona Dawson, write the following in a statement:
We understand the inequities that were associated with the name and face of the previous brand, and as we announced in June, we have committed to change.
The updated “Ben’s Original” packaging will hit shelves in 2021.