Negrito Please

The Root's Black Skin, Blue Passport columnist wonders why black caricatures are still used to sell food around the world.


I recently spent some time in Mexico, where it seemed that every surface was covered by ads for Bimbo, a wildly popular baked goods company. In a country where tortillas and pan dulce reign supreme, Bimbo's success in peddling packaged breads and sweets to the masses is no small feat. In fact, the company even has a longstanding presence north of the border, where Bimbo also produces and distributes brands like Orowheat and Entenmann's.

So why have I never seen this ad here in the United States?

Or, to ask a better question, why is this ad acceptable in Mexico?

I do not mean to suggest that the United States has moved beyond the realm of questionable visual representations of black people, leaving the rest of the world to catch up with our enlightened perspective. After all, from Aunt Jemima to Uncle Ben, U.S. advertisers have a sordid history of using stereotypical images of black men, women and children to sell products.

And while contemporary ad campaigns are certainly less egregious than in the past, they nonetheless remain contentious: Last year, The New York Timesran a story about the Mars food company's effort to update the profile of Uncle Ben, one of their most recognizable brands. Calling their namesake "an African-American icon," the company developed an interactive Web site that cast the new "Ben" not as a servant but as an executive, inviting visitors into his office where he shares "recipes, tips and history."



The popular brand, "Uncle Ben's" rice, attempted to make their mascot less subserviant looking, last year. Hence, the board room desk in the background.


Critics took issue with the fact that, even in his new role as chairman, "Ben" is referred to by his first name (which harkens back to an era when even white children refused to address black men and women by titles such as Mr. and Mrs.), and argued that a simple makeover could not erase the character's troublesome history.

The latter point gets to the heart of the matter. Sometimes images carry so much painful historical baggage that they are better left in the past.