When food ads go racist

A look back at the tone-deaf advertising strategies of yesteryear

By Thomas Rogers
Published January 26, 2010 9:27PM (EST)

In the wake of the ridiculous KFC racist-ad-troversy a few weeks ago, racially inappropriate food advertising has been on a lot of people’s minds lately (OK, probably just ours), so we were excited to come across Slashfood’s great post about the history of racial advertising in food. We all know those famously questionable icons Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, but in his post Sean Elder has also rounded up some lesser-known misguided advertising strategies:

  • Rastus: The Cream of Wheat's trademark figure -- a black man in a chef's outfit -- doesn't appear immediately offensive unless you know his history ("a 1915 Cream of Wheat ad showed Uncle Sam looking at Rastus, bearing a bowl of cereal, and saying, 'Well, you're helping some!'"), and the fact that "Rastus" is both a pejorative racist term and the name of a type of character popular in minstrel shows. Unsurprisingly, there is currently a petition asking for Rastus' removal.
  • The Frito Bandito: The Bandito was a corn-chips-stealing Mexican outlaw who was created to shill Frito Lay between 1967 and 1971. Eventually animated by Tex Avery, the Bandito caused an  uproar among Mexican-Americans for being "unshaven, unfriendly and leering" -- not to mention a scoundrel (with a hilariously over-the-top accent). 

  • Starting in the '50s, Hamm's Beer used a Native American theme, complete with tom-tom music, a chanting choir and melodramatic narration (the beer is “brewed for many moons”) to sell its suds. (Says Elder: “It’s really only in the context of alcoholism on Indian reservations that the imagery loses its muster.”)

  • Chun King Chinese food: The Duluth-based cannery “used pictures of coolies, complete with pigtails and pajamas,” to advertise their American-made Chinese food in the middle of the century. Slashfood has a great photo of the package at the top of its post. The company eventually toned down its advertising, and commissioned Stan Freberg to create something called the "Chung King Chow Mein Hour" (complete with its own Native American stereotyping).

A more contemporary example, however, is Ching’s Secret: An Indian company that sells Chinese ingredients in the United States, Asia and other parts of the world, and features a picture of a fu manchu’d rice farmer (presumably Ching) wearing a pointy straw hat on its packaging. The image becomes becomes even more offensive, and hilarious, when blown up on the side of a truck. 

Clearly there’s more where this came from. What are some other offensive or racially insensitive food ads that you’ve come across? Let us know in the comments, or blog about them on Open Salon -- just make sure to tag your post "offensive foods."

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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