As I’ve said time and time again, even though I work in marketing… I really hate marketing. Don’t get me wrong – the right kind of marketing can be invaluable to both a business and the buying public. Others, however, only seek to obfuscate the truth and cover up something that might convince you to take your money elsewhere. That’s the kind of marketing I dislike.
And, so is the case with Aunt Jemima. As I was researching for the latest series for the blog, I happened to uncover this little beauty, retyped from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink:
Aunt Jemima pancake ﬂour, the ﬁrst nationally distributed ready-mix food and one of the earliest products to be marketed through personal appearances and advertisements featuring its namesake, was created by combining advances in manufacturing and distribution with popular nostalgia for the antebellum south.
The self-rising pancake ﬂour was created by a pair of speculators, Chris Russ and Charles Underwood, in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1889. The duo had purchased a bankrupt mill and planned to make it successful by developing a new product that would spur demand for their ﬂour. Despite their lack of culinary expertise, or perhaps because of it, the two settled on developing a foolproof and less labor-intensive pancake batter that would require only the addition of water. They experimented with a variety of recipes in the summer of 1889 before settling on a mixture of wheat ﬂour, corn ﬂour, lime phosphate and salt.
The product was originally named “Self-Rising Pancake Flour” and sold in bags. In the fall of 1889, Rutt was inspired to rename the mix after attending a minstrel show, during which a popular song titled “Old Aunt Jemima” was performed by men in blackface, one of whom was depicting a slave mammy of the plantation South. The song, which was written by the African-American singer, dancer and acrobat Billy Kersands in 1875, was a staple of the minstrel circuit and was based on a song sung by ﬁeld slaves.
Rutt and Underwood sold their milling company to a larger corporation owned by R.G. Davis of Chicago. He transformed the local product into a national one by distributing it through a network of suppliers and by creating a persona for Aunt Jemima. Davis hired Nancy Green, a former Kentucky slave and cook in a Chicago kitchen, to portray Aunt Jemima in that city’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. She served pancakes from a booth designed to look like a huge ﬂour barrel and told stories of life as a cook on an Old South plantation. Her highly publicized appearance spurred thousands of orders for the product from distributors. Davis also commissioned a pamphlet detailing the “life” of Aunt Jemima. She was depicted as the actual house slave of one Colonel Higbee of Louisiana, whose plantation was known across the South for its ﬁne dining –especially its pancake breakfasts.
The recipe for the pancakes was a secret known only to the slave woman. Sometime after the war, the pamphlet said, Aunt Jemima was remembered by a Confederate general who had once found himself stranded at her cabin. The general recalled her pancakes and put Aunt Jemima in contact with a “large northern milling company,” which paid her (in gold) to come north and supervise the construction of a factory to mass-produce her mix. This surprisingly durable fable formed the background for decades of future Aunt Jemima advertising.
The basic story was ﬂeshed out and brilliantly illustrated through an advertising campaign in North American women’s magazines during the 1920s and 1930. The ads were the work of James Webb Young, a legendary account executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Chicago, and N. C. Wyeth, the well-known painter and illustrator of such books as Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. The full-page color advertisements ran regularly in Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post and told tales of the leisure and splendor of the plantation South, complete with grand balls, huge dinners and visitors dropping in from across the region. Not too subtly, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, a labor-saving product, was marketed with comparisons to a time and place when some American white women had access to the ultimate labor-saving device: a slave. A line from a 1927 product display read, “Make them with Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour, and your family will ask where you got your wonderful southern cook.”
After aunt Jemima’s debut in 1893, her character was played by dozens of women in radio and, eventually, television commercials and in appearances at schools and country fairs. After Nancy Green, the original actress, dies in 1923, she was replaced as Aunt Jemima by Anna Robinson, a darker-complected and heavier (at 350lbs) woman. The image on the box and in ads was adjusted to resemble her more closely. Later, the actresses Aylene Lewis and Edith Wilson portrayed the mammy in some advertisements. Lewis also played the role at Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House in Disneyland, which opened in 1957.
However, the advertising icon, always a source of criticism in African American newspapers, came under increasing scrutiny in the 1950s and 1960s as ﬁrst the civil rights movement and then the black power movement reached their respective crests. Local chapters of the NAACP began pressuring schools and fair organizers not to invite Aunt Jemima to appear. In 1967, Edith Wilson became the last woman to play Aunt Jemima in advertisements when the Quaker Oats company, which had owned the product since 1925, ﬁred her and canceled its television campaign. Quaker Oats also took Aunt Jemima’s name off the Disneyland restaurant in 1970; Aylene Lewis was the last woman to portray Aunt Jemima on the company’s behalf.
Revising the Image
Throughout the 1960s, Quaker Oats lightened Aunt Jemima’s skin and made her look thinner in print images. In 1968, the company replaced her bandana with a headband, slimmed her down further and created a somewhat younger-looking image. She still appeared in print advertisements but without the heavy reliance on the southern plantation settings and largely without a speaking role. In 1989, Quaker Oats made the most dramatic alteration yet to Aunt Jemima’s appearance, removing her headband to reveal a head full of graying curls and adding earrings and a pearl necklace. The company said it was repositioning the brand icon as a “black working grandmother.”
In 1993, Quaker Oats debuted a series of television ads for the pancake mix featuring the singer Gladys Knight as a spokeswoman and using Aunt Jemima’s face only sparingly. The ads had a very short run, and Aunt Jemima continues to
hold a low proﬁle in the advertising world, even though she consistently ranks as one of the most recognizable trade names in North America. Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup remain market leaders in the United States, and in the
1990s Quaker Oats even licensed the use of her name and image for a line of frozen breakfast products manufactured by another ﬁrm. Despite the controversy surrounding her image in the late 20th century, Aunt Jemima remains one of the most successful advertising icons of our time.
Now, compare that to AuntJemima.com’s “History” page. Sure looks whitewashed to me.
My overarching point, here, is that marketing can – and often is – used to manipulate the facts. It’s used as a tool to convince you to give me your money and not the other guy. And that’s fine – but as conscious consumers, we like to have all the facts. I can’t say that I’d support Aunt Jemima anyway because (a) I’m pretty sure that syrup isn’t much more than high fructose corn syrup and caramel color anymore, (b) my pancakes taste way better and (c) I’m not interested in paying triple the cost for a poor quality product. However, I couldn’t even tacitly support a company like this.
Just consider this a lesson in “epic whitewashing,” and a polite reminder that marketing is almost always hiding something.