- The Aunt Jemima name and image is being discontinued from the pancakes and syrup brand owned by PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats, the company announced Wednesday morning. The products have been sold under that name since 1889. The Aunt Jemima image will be taken off of packaging at the end of 2020, and the name change will come later, according to a company statement.
- “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, said in the statement. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough.”
- Kroepfl said in the email that the company would continue the conversation by getting diverse perspectives, both from within PepsiCo and the Black community. The company said it wants to evolve the brand into something “everyone can be proud of to have in their pantry.” The brand will also donate $5 million during the next five years “to create meaningful, ongoing support in the Black community,” the statement says.
The wave of corporate changes inspired by massive protests against systemic racism across the United States has brought down probably the best known — and most controversial — Black brand mascot on a food brand.
The announcement of the rebrand came early Wednesday morning — just a day after social media was full of criticism that PepsiCo continued to use the brand name and image.
Aunt Jemima never was an actual person. The name was taken from a minstrel show and given to a new brand of pancake mix near the beginning of the 20th century. Nancy Green, a former slave who was working as a house maid, was cast as the first Aunt Jemima character. According to an essay about the brand on BlackExcellence.com, Green as Aunt Jemima was one of the most successful displays at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where she did cooking demonstrations, sang songs and told about the “good Old South.”
The World’s Fair firmly established the brand as a pantry fixture, and images (and a detailed backstory) of Aunt Jemima continued to make the brand popular. Green — and then Anna Harrington, following Green’s death — continued to portray Aunt Jemima through the years. Advertisements and a radio show reinforced the brand’s imagery. There was even an Aunt Jemima restaurant at Disneyland, where actress Aylene Lewis portrayed Aunt Jemima.
As the decades went by, the Aunt Jemima character became less politically correct, and her appearance and image were toned down. Soon, there were no actors playing Aunt Jemima, and the Disneyland restaurant closed. On packaging, the kerchief of a house slave was taken away, and in 1989, Aunt Jemima took on more of the look of a Black housewife.
Lawsuits, protests and petitions about the Aunt Jemima name and imagery have been launched for years, though none has resulted in any change.
In 2014, two of Harrington’s heirs sued PepsiCo — which has been owner of the brand since 2001 — and others that made Aunt Jemima products at the time for $2 billion, saying the women who portrayed Aunt Jemima were not fairly compensated for their contributions to the brand. While the lawsuit’s filing changed some opinions about the brand, it was ultimately thrown out because the people who brought it could not prove a close connection to the family.
In 2017, Black lifestyle guru B. Smith’s husband Dan Gasby started a petition to remove Aunt Jemima from the packages and replace her with B. Smith.
But at this moment, when companies are making new commitments to start addressing racism both within their corporate offices and in the wider world, a social media movement quickly accomplished what others could not. Considering PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta published an essay in Fortune about how important Black lives were to both him personally and his company’s mission as Aunt Jemima was trending in social media, it would have looked bad for the company not to practice what it preaches.
As Aunt Jemima exits, it will be interesting to see what happens to other minorities on food brands, like Uncle Ben and Rastus, the Black chef on Cream of Wheat packages. While Uncle Ben’s name and brand imagery is said to honor a Texas rice farmer and a well-known Chicago chef and waiter, according to the brand website, Rastus has been criticized for being another depiction of the good old South.
What is apparent is that consumers are paying close attention to whose faces are on the products they are buying. Changing mascots and packaging depictions considered racist has long been a challenge to food companies, but now may be the time to do it as racial issues are at the forefront of national conversation.& A complete rebrand of Aunt Jemima is probably the biggest undertaking in the food business, with the name having more than 130 years of brand recognition.