For decades, Quaker Oats knew that one of its major brands, Aunt Jemima, was built on racist imagery. The company inched toward fixing the problem over the years, replacing the kerchief on the Aunt Jemima character’s head with a plaid headband in 1968, and adding pearl earrings and a lace collar in 1989. But it was not until Wednesday that Quaker Oats announced it would drop the Aunt Jemima name and change the packaging.
The decision to remake the pancake-mix and syrup brand, which was founded in 1889, came as widespread protests against racism have reverberated throughout the country, leading to changes in the corporate world and the toppling of statues depicting Confederate leaders.
Quaker Oats, which has been owned by PepsiCo since 2001, announced its decision on Aunt Jemima days after a TikTok video describing the brand’s history was shared widely on social media. In retiring the name and character, the company acknowledged that Aunt Jemima’s origins were “based on a racial stereotype.”
In a statement, the company said it was working “to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives.” The packaging changes will appear toward the end of the year, with the name change to follow.
The founders of the brand hired a former slave to portray Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In the 1930s, after Quaker Oats bought the brand, the character was played in a radio series by a white actress who had performed in blackface on Broadway. A 1954 magazine ad showed Aunt Jemima superimposed over an image of a plantation and a riverboat.
Quaker Oats considered doing away with the logo in recent years, said Dominique Wilburn, who worked as an executive assistant at PepsiCo for several years. Wilburn said she joined an effort to come up with a rebranding campaign for Aunt Jemima in 2016. In her group of six people, she was the only person of color, she said.
The group tossed around ideas, all the while “very aware of the broader implications and what would happen if we got this wrong,” Wilburn said. The plan was to introduce changes during a tranquil period, when PepsiCo was not embroiled in any controversy.
Suggestions ranged from changing the character’s name to “Aunt J” to making Aunt Jemima’s straightened hair more natural and building out her backstory, Wilburn said. One proposal involved asking artists to remake the character’s image; another called for sending Quaker Oats employees to a Southern plantation to help them understand the legacy of slavery, she said.
A team member suggested that Indra Nooyi, who was then PepsiCo’s chief executive, release a contrite letter on the brand’s troubled history; Wilburn said she criticized the idea that one of the few women of color leading a major corporation should have to apologize for her predecessors’ mistakes.
At the end of the process, Wilburn’s group agreed that the Aunt Jemima name should be changed and the image removed, Wilburn said. But gaining approval from top executives was difficult, partly because PepsiCo found itself in a controversy after running a commercial that showed Kendall Jenner, a white model, delivering a can of Pepsi to a law enforcement officer at a Black Lives Matter protest, she said.
PepsiCo said in a statement Wednesday that there were “several workstreams” reviewing the brand in 2016 and that “due to personnel changes and shifting priorities, the workstream was eventually put on hold.”
Since then, Quaker Oats has not given Aunt Jemima significant promotion. Last year, Quaker Oats spent $245,000 marketing the brand, compared with $6.2 million it spent on Life Cereal, excluding social media, according to research firm Kantar.
Wilburn said the company tried to avoid heavily promoting Aunt Jemima. “They were constantly being told, ‘Let’s not over-promote it or do a lot of partnerships’ — nobody wanted to call attention to it,” she said. “Aunt Jemima was a category leader, and nobody wanted to mess with that stream of revenue.”
Wednesday’s announcement stemmed from several weeks of meetings between top PepsiCo leaders, employees and community leaders, the company said.
The decision to change the brand, reported earlier by NBC News, came during the widespread protests against racism and police brutality prompted by the killing last month in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pinned him to the ground.
The protests have led to statements of support from companies like Nike and Twitter, which have declared Juneteenth on Friday an employee holiday. Sportswear giant Adidas pledged that 30% of new hires would be black or Latino and said it would fund 50 university scholarships a year for black students over the next five years. Makeup brand Sephora has pledged that 15% of the shelf space in its stores will feature products made by black-owned businesses.
In other cases, the reckoning has prompted the ousting of executives, including the CEO of CrossFit, who was dismissive of the uproar over Floyd’s death. High-level editors at The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after staff members criticized content related to the protests in those papers. NBC late-night host Jimmy Fallon has apologized for performing in blackface on “Saturday Night Live” in 2000.
Last week, streaming service HBO Max temporarily removed the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” from its catalog because of its glorification of the antebellum South, a depiction that included a subservient black character named Mammy.
The Aunt Jemima brand has its roots in a 19th-century minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima.” The character is one of “many racialized caricatures” that were “the creation of the white imagination” during the rise of the marketing industry, said Gregory D. Smithers, an American history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Marketing companies used racism to sell everything from soap, children’s board games and food,” said Smithers, who wrote a book about the use of racist imagery in popular media.
Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University, called for an end to the Aunt Jemima character in a 2015 opinion essay in the Times. In an interview, she said, “It is a symbol that is rooted in the ‘Mammy’ stereotype, that is premised on notions of black otherness and inferiority, that hearkens back to a time when black people were thought of and idealized mainly in relation to servant positions.”
On Monday, singer Kirby described the history of the brand in a TikTok video that has been viewed more than 1.8 million times. The video, “How to Make a Non Racist Breakfast,” ends with her pouring a box of the pancake mix into a sink. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian amplified Kirby’s message on Twitter, where he has more than 334,000 followers. “How is Aunt Jemima not canceled??” he wrote Tuesday, linking to the TikTok video.
Kristin Kroepfl, the Quaker Oats chief marketing officer, said in a statement Wednesday, “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.”
Nancy Green, who played Aunt Jemima at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1834. In magazine ads throughout much of the 20th century, some by artist N.C. Wyeth, the character was shown serving white families. From 1955 to 1970, Disneyland had an Aunt Jemima restaurant. It featured an actress costumed in a plaid dress, apron and kerchief who served food, sang and posed for photos with patrons, according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Michigan.
Black artists, including Joe Overstreet and Betye Saar, have challenged the character for decades. Overstreet painted Aunt Jemima wielding a machine gun in 1964 and created an expanded version of the work, called “New Jemima,” in 1970. Saar’s 1972 mixed-media sculpture, “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” presented a “mammy” figurine armed with a rifle and a hand grenade against a backdrop of repeated images of Aunt Jemima’s face.
In 1980, in a commentary for National Public Radio, black writer and culinary historian Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor called on Quaker Oats to retire the character.
Other food brands, including Cream of Wheat, Land O’Lakes and Uncle Ben’s, marketed themselves in the last century with racist stereotypes.
After the Quaker Oats announcement Wednesday, food and candy giant Mars, the owner of Uncle Ben’s, said it was “evaluating all possibilities” concerning the brand. Mars said it did not yet know the changes it would make or when they would go into effect, but added that it had a responsibility “to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices.”
Also Wednesday, the syrup brand Mrs. Butterworth’s said it was starting “a complete brand and packaging review” after acknowledging that its bottle, which is “intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother,” could “be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.” The brand, owned by ConAgra Foods, said that “it’s heartbreaking and unacceptable that racism and racial injustices exist around the world” and pledged to “be part of the solution.”
Land O’Lakes had started removing stereotypical Native American imagery from many of its products before the recent protests.
Quaker Oats’ discomfort with the Aunt Jemima brand was apparent decades ago, said Scott Buckley, who worked on advertising projects for Quaker Oats in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was an account supervisor at the Jordan McGrath Case & Taylor agency. He said the company was often reluctant to spend heavily to market Aunt Jemima, believing “it wasn’t worth the blowback.”
Quaker Oats said Wednesday that it would donate at least $5 million over the next five years “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.”