Must See: Uncle Ben Gets Makeover

By The News Mar 30, 2007

Rice commercial icon Uncle Ben just got a makeover—from old porter boy to chairman of the company.

Food producer Mars, who sells Uncle Ben’s line of rices and side dishes, is trying to revive the racially charged Uncle Ben, an old black man who’s wide smile and servant’s bow tie has graced the boxes and bags of products for more than 60 years. The New York Times reports:

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.

Though I’d argue this brand stereotyping still happens on grand scales.

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.

Starting this week, Uncle Ben won’t live just on the corner of your food packages. Now he’s got a penthouse executive suite and a story to tell. To prove it, marketers launched an interactive site:, that lets you hang out in Ben’s new office, read his date book and play chess. [Though a full-body Ben is conspicuously missing from the whole scene.]

Mr. Visconti of Diversity Inc. Media…said he would have turned Ben’s office into “a learning experience,” furnishing it [the viritual office] 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.

But let’s face it: one generation’s house cook is another’s token.