This week, a lot of bad stuff happened to big brands—brands so big, most people just assumed they were impossible to hurt.
The on that landed the hardest was Aunt Jemima. The Quaker Oats-owned pancake mix and syrup brand that was obviously racist to so many for so long, yet somehow stayed on the shelves, finally announced this week that it would get rid of the offensive “mammy” picture on the box, followed shortly by the name itself. (“Aunt” or “Uncle,” as in Ben, was the way slaveowners referred to slaves of a certain age, conferring a grudging, backhanded mock-respect without any accompanying status.)
Then there’s Big Tuna, of all things. If you thought there was something fishy and canned-sounding about that business, you were right. The CEO of Bumblebee was found guilty and hauled off to jail for conspiring with his friends at Starkist and Chicken of the Sea to fix prices. He’s doing three years, although it’ll be sandwiched between two high-paid executive gigs, so he probably won’t get too salty about it. Personally I think he should get ten years for his mullet alone—the hairdo, not the fish.
Then there’s Crossfit. CEO Greg Glassman was caught in a voice recording say he wasn’t mourning George Floyd, the Black American who was murdered by cops for the “horrible crime” of bouncing a check, and whose killing is looking more and more like it was premeditated. Glassman might as well have put on a KKK outfit with a big Crossfit logo and marched around midtown Manhattan and Beverly Hills. Word on the street is the company is either starting over from scratch or just closing up shop.
Finally, eBay had an unexpected moment in the sun when two top executives, along with a few lower-level colleagues, sent live cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a bloody pig mask (not made from an actual pig) to a reviewer who dared to post critical reviews of eBay-sold products. They’ve now been charged by the U.S. Dept. of Justice with cyberstalking, and I think also with impersonating a John Waters movie.
What we can take away from all this? I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but I think something big is getting exposed. It’s not just institutionalized racism, which the popular narrative says is dead, but is sadly alive and well. It’s not just corporate greed, although that’s part of it. It’s not just white privilege or ruling class privilege or a narcissistic sociopathic vengeance when things don’t go exactly your way. It’s all of those things, rolled up into one huge virulent ball. And they’re coming back to bite everyone who worshiped the U.S. dollar at the expense of honesty and dignity.
For those of us in marketing, advertising, and branding, it’s time to pick a side. You’re either with Black Lives Matter, or you’re a racist. You’re either with First Amendment freedom of expression, or you’re a fascist. You’re either with free and fair competition or you’re a monopolist. Hell, even Republicans frown on those.
It doesn’t matter what expensive college you went to, what rich people you’re connected to, or how good you are at kissing up. The middle ground has now disappeared. You’re on the side of good, or you’re on the side of evil. Take a damn stand. If you can’t, more stuff is going to change, and I guarantee you’re not going to like it.