The Legacy of Racism in Advertising
October 18, 2011 Leave a comment
Cream of Wheat is a product that many Americans love. It’s been popular since it was invented in 1893. That invention became a marketable product which needed a trademark to sell itself. People may or may not know the history of Cream of Wheat’s advertising icon. Whether individuals are aware or not, Rastus, Cream of Wheat’s advertising icon has been racially stereotypical and continues to be to this day. Because of the racially stereotypical image, B&G Foods Inc. should change its symbolic ethnic trademark to a less racially stereotypical image.
Firstly, the etymology of the product’s icon should be examined. The name of the character pictured on the box of Cream of Wheat is Rastus. According to urbandictionary.com, Rastus means “a stereotype of the jolly, former slave, and a character of the coon type often featured in minstrel shows.” An alternate meaning defines Rastus as “a pejorative name used by White folks for African American males in the 20th century.” Clearly, these are racially degrading descriptions.
Additionally, the name is considered to be “highly offensive” and “derogatory for Black men since at least 1880.” The only other definition for Rastus is the abbreviation of the English boy name Erastus. This definition couldn’t be applied to the Cream of Wheat icon, because nothing about him articulates “English” or “boy” (unless he was being referred to as the racially degrading connotation of “boy”). Since the icon’s name is racially derived, the image should be changed.
Rastus’ depiction in early Cream of Wheat advertisements is another reason why the product’s image should be changed. Early Cream of Wheat advertisements portrayed Rastus as the advertising version of the Uncle Tom travesty. Uncle Toms were illustrated as docile, happy, and submissive servants to White folks. In the same manner, Rastus was exemplified as an Uncle Tom in Cream of Wheat advertisements. A 1921 advertisement depicts Rastus as barely literate. In the advertisement, Rastus holds a sign that reads:
Maybe Cream of Wheat
Ain’t got no vitamins.
I don’t know what them
Things is. If they’s bugs
They ain’t none in Cream
Of Wheat but she’s sho’ good
To eat and cheap. Costs ‘bout
1 cent fo a great big dish.
Another poster shows Rastus pulling a White boy in a wagon. Rastus stops pulling to take a smoke. The boy waves a whip and says, “Giddup Uncle.” The advertising icon should be pulled, because early Cream of Wheat advertisements showed racial stereotypes.
One could argue that these depictions and identities originated over a century ago and are no longer relevant to the current times. It must be noted that only “slight modifications” have been made to the Rastus icon. In essence, the same image from circa 1890 is still on display now.
Rastus’ inferior treatment further exhibits the racism of that era. The Chicago waiter, who posed for the picture that eventually became the face of Cream of Wheat, was paid only $5 for his service to the product, the company and the millions of consumers. Upon his death, Frank White was buried in an unmarked grave as if he wasn’t important to American society.
While some individuals may see the smiling chef as harmless, others still recognize the twisted origin of this advertising icon and call for its removal. In an online petition to the CEO/President of B&G Foods, a group known as The Undersigned is demanding that the icon be removed for its racial undertones. The petition says the members of the group “are outraged and offended that your company has insisted on keeping as its trademark a racist symbol that has been an insulting, degrading stereotype directed against Black American men for over 100 years.”
Cream of Wheat’s ethnic symbolic trademark remains to be relevant to Americans in the present day, and its history continues to enforce racial prejudice and hinder the advancement of race relations. For his identity and portrayal, Rastus has always been and possibly always will be a racially stereotypical image of the Cream of Wheat product and should be changed.