Replacing Aunt Jemima Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

A deep dive into America’s long, fraught tradition of racist logos

Photo illustration, source: PepsiCo

The Black Lives Matter groundswell last year prompted reckonings across many aspects of American business, including branding. The criticism of long-established commercial icons like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, which had been building for decades, finally reached a tipping point. The result was their removal from packaging in overdue recognition of their roots in racist stereotypes, and their eventual replacement. So it was announced this week that the Aunt Jemima brand will now be known as “Pearl Milling Company,” replacing the character’s portrait with a drawing of a 19th-century water mill.

Late last year we saw a handful of these brand rehabs: Professional sports franchises stated their plans to abandon team names deemed culturally appropriative and outright offensive as reflected by the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins, now the Washington Football Team. And Land O’Lakes quietly removed its Native American “butter maiden” logo last spring ahead of its 100th anniversary of the brand this year. Beyond inspiring these specific changes, though, the cultural moment has also made distinct the more general difficulty that corporate America faces in depicting itself in a human way.

“Corporations are people, my friend,” Mitt Romney infamously declared during his 2012 presidential run. The negative reaction to his tone-deaf statement highlighted the common perception that business lacks a certain humanity, a viewpoint that is reinforced by looking over today’s corporate branding. The armies of “trade characters” once sent forth by U.S. companies to represent themselves and their products have dwindled to a relative few.

Only eight Fortune 500 logos, or 1.6% of the total, contain a likeness of a person.

Today, only eight Fortune 500 logos, or 1.6% of the total, contain a likeness of a person. Three of them — those of Aramark, Sempra Energy, and WESCO International — employ highly abstract human images, not too far removed from the blank figures found on restroom doors. Two, Franklin Templeton and Lincoln Financial Group, feature their famous historical namesakes. Starbucks and Equitable Holdings use mythological figures, and Alaska Air’s logo depicts the sole Native American after Mutual of Omaha replaced the chief in its logo with a lion last year.

When commerce in the United States began to operate at a larger scale following the Industrial Revolution, companies realized that personifying themselves could help the public negotiate the rapid changes affecting consumer decision-making. Where once shoppers had bought products like oats by asking a familiar shopkeeper to scoop them from a barrel in a general store, now they found themselves selecting a prepackaged, branded box off the shelf of a bigger, more impersonal establishment. A friendly advertising character, like the Quaker Oats man — created in 1877 and known within the company as “Larry” — stamped on that box could take the psychological place of the shopkeeper in what surely would today be called the customer’s “purchasing journey” by some marketing wizard.

By the 1920s, these trade characters had acquired such a vogue that a glut of copycat figures cluttered American advertising and businesses began to see the drawbacks of human logos, particularly those of women and racial minorities. Harvey O. Lennin, in his 1920 article, “Be Cautious When You Adopt a Trade Character,” quoted a regretful business owner who had chosen a picture of his niece to represent his company: “Oh, if she had only been twins or a boy, we would have been spared this trying aftermath. For now it keeps us busy changing her head-dress and costume, year by year, as the fashions change. Even the face seems to belong to another generation.”

Minority trade characters were often chosen to reflect some stereotype that the white consumer would find disdainfully amusing. But marketers were also wary of repulsing their racist customers. One brand, Skookum Apples faced blowback for its Native American character, Lennin wrote, “When this trade-mark first appeared, many people in the advertising world criticised it sharply… Indians were not noted for their neatness of person — and who wanted to munch apples that had been handled by the last of the Redskins?”

Today, corporate America seems unsure of how to try to symbolically imbue itself with humanity.

By the late 20th century, a new trend of simple, clean, and nonrepresentative trademarks had taken the place of characters in logos. Companies used cold, abstract marks to portray themselves as mighty and technologically proficient while eschewing human images. Examination of data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) shows the extent to which the use of men, women, and people in general in logos has declined from 1950 to today.

In the 1980s, a postmodern movement in logo design arose in reaction to the overabundance of antiseptic, look-alike geometric corporate logos. The philosophy of this “new humanism” in logo design was summed up by designer Mark Fox, writing in 1994: “Emotion is not a liability and our humanity can be a cause for celebration rather than an admission of weakness.”

Yet reincorporating people into logos at this point meant avoiding the racist and sexist stereotypes that had inspired many of the old trade characters, and it seemed that many brands would rather just avoid the potential problems of depicting people in a manner that reflected diversity. “Companies today are faced with a dilemma: How to represent women in a way that is not outdated, sexist, or both,” wrote design historian John Mendenhall in 1990. “In an effort to avoid controversy, all but the most innocuous use of the female has been shunned in favor of the male character mark.”

The degree to which earlier advertising characters had been based on all sorts of outdated cultural tropes is evident in looking at the USPTO’s Design Search Code, a 1980s system implemented to allow for electronic searching of trademark records. Trademark applications are assigned six-digit codes by the USPTO based on their graphical content. So, for instance, the Aunt Jemima logo was given codes 020301 (portraits of women) and 020315 (women wearing scarves on their heads).

Minority trade characters were often chosen to reflect some stereotype that the white consumer would find disdainfully amusing.

This coding system reflected the sociocultural reality of the trade character logos it was designed to enumerate. The codes capture personal characteristics, including race and gender, as they were perceived in American culture many decades ago. There are codes for Native Americans and Asian Pacific people, but not for African Americans. Women, but not men, can be coded as “Hawaiian,” while men, but not women, can be deemed “Famous,” “Cowboys and westerners,” or “Farmers, hillbillies, or hobos” (the second of these terms was recently stricken). The categories for Scottish men and women seem to exist solely to code trade characters representing thriftiness — or, more bluntly, cheapness.

The codes for men tend to involve activity or skill (knights, doctors, hunters), while those for women often reflect appearance (women wearing bonnets, women holding umbrellas, nude women). Analysis of the USPTO data derived from these codes shows that, almost without exception, the use of these human design elements has fallen since 1950.

In recent decades, the use of human logos became even more fraught with difficulty as a growing societal recognition of the importance of diversity made it seem less possible that an image of a single individual could serve as the representative of an entire firm. What eventually emerged as the solution to this quandary was a design element that designer Michael Bierut labeled the “neutered sprite:” A simple human figure, often depicted with body and limbs that resembled the ubiquitous “swooshes” of turn-of-the-millennium dot-com companies, abstracted to the point that characteristics like race and gender disappeared. But after its heyday in the 2000s, the design and business worlds seem to be tiring of this element as well.

Today, corporate America seems unsure of how to try to symbolically imbue itself with humanity. Fearful of addressing race or gender too directly in its graphic communications in the wake of Black Lives Matter, it has turned to the use of illustration styles featuring flat cartoon people with improbable rainbow-colored skin tones and wildly disproportionate limbs. Eventually, though, this approach, too, will grow tiresome. The coming years will reveal either a great opportunity for the designer who can put a relatable human face on the nation’s businesses, or the trade character’s final extinction.

Principal at Emblemetric, Sociologist at Northern Arizona University. Data-driven reporting on trends in logo design: Emblemetric.com

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