ARUN RATH: In 1967, the Frito Bandito stole his way to the top of the advertising food chain, when Frito-Lay used the animated outlaw to sell corn chips to kids. A pistol-packing Mexican thief – drawn by Tex Avery, and voiced by Mel Blanc – he quickly drew the ire of Mexican-Americans, who fought back.
Within a few years, the Bandito was banished, but as reporter David Segal noted in Slate this week, the Frito Bandito wasn’t the first racist spokes-character to hawk food products. Segal joins us now for a tour of advertising infamy. David, welcome to On the Media.
DAVID SEGAL: Thanks very much. ARUN RATH: So I want to start with a spokescharacter that’s been in the news recently, because after 60 years of faithfully adorning boxes of rice as an avuncular cook, he’s finally received a promotion. That’s, of course, Uncle Ben. DAVID SEGAL: Yeah, Uncle Ben was introduced in 1943. He was the bow-tied chef on the box and recently, Mars, which now owns Uncle Ben, decided to give him a promotion, and they have made him the CEO of the fictional Uncle Ben’s, Incorporated. ARUN RATH: Well, Uncle Ben was basically – the image is - he’s an Uncle Tom, right? DAVID SEGAL: He’s an Uncle Tom. This is a character that people might not know about now, but at the time when he was introduced in the ‘40s, the Tom was a very popular figure in advertising and there were dozens of companies that created Toms as spokescharacters. They were basically all the same person. They were black, they were in their forties or over, and they had no ambition, they were very, very happy and they were just pleased to be serving white people.
Oddly enough, they haven’t given him much of an upgrade in wardrobe. He still has this bow-tie that he had in the ‘40s, but he’s got a sort of swishier jacket. He has a wood-paneled office and a Mac, as well as a date book filled with his upcoming travel plans. ARUN RATH: So Uncle Ben has really had an amazing rise through the ranks, but there’s another character that I noticed in the grocery store the other day, after reading your piece, that seems pretty much the same as ever - the Cream of Wheat guy? DAVID SEGAL: Yeah, Rastus predates Uncle Ben by a few decades. He was this invention by the guys that started Cream of Wheat. Rastus would sometimes have a chalkboard and he would write messages on the chalkboard and they were written in the kind of broken English of a slave, and that’s really what these characters were.
They were kind of holdovers from the era of slavery, and in the South, they kind of operated as a way of saying to Northerners, you know, if segregation’s so bad, why are these people so happy? It was a kind of implicit argument for segregation, and in the North, I think they appealed to people that felt like they wanted a butler. They wanted to feel privileged, and these characters sort of did that. ARUN RATH: There was a Shirley Temple movie where she plays the daughter of a confederate soldier, and it’s the same thing there. They’re on a plantation in the South before the war, and the slaves are all just really happy, dancing. After the war, they’re really miserable. DAVID SEGAL: Right. [LAUGHTER] ARUN RATH: Nobody’s taking care of them and I guess they have nobody to cook for. DAVID SEGAL: The ur-example of that is, of course, Aunt Jemima. She got her start in 1899. She was this creation of Chris Rutt, who had seen a minstrel character by the name of Aunt Jemima, and decided that this would be the character that would promote his new self-rising pancake mix. [CLIP]: ACTOR: You know, Aunt Jemima, morning noon or night, there’s nothing like a fragrant stack of your Aunt Jemima pancakes. FEMALE ACTOR AS AUNT JEMIMA: They’s tantalatin’ for breakfast, lunch or supper.
ACTOR: Mmm, yes. AUNT JEMIMA: And radiatin’ with delicious aroma. [END OF CLIP] DAVID SEGAL: She was a huge success. [CLIP]: ACTOR: And remember - AUNT JEMIMA: - pancake days is happy days. ACTOR: When you serve tantalatin’ appetizing – [CHOIR HUMS] - tastin’ and tantalizing Aunt Jemima pancakes! [END OF CLIP] DAVID SEGAL: And the back story of Aunt Jemima in the early ads was that she had lived on a plantation with a colonel in Louisiana and pined for the days, as she put it, “befo’ da woh.” Lots of her dialog was broken up like that, and it was all about a kind of nostalgia. And she herself was supposed to be an ex-slave. ARUN RATH: Now, the racist spokes-characters are not confined just to African-American images, as we’ve noted at the start. The Frito Bandito was a character of some notoriety, I guess in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We don’t hear about him much these days. What happened to the Frito Bandito? DAVID SEGAL: I started writing this piece when my editor asked me to do a thing about snacks, and it occurred to me that there had been a character in my childhood named the Frito Bandito, who was a kind of dwarf Mexican criminal who wanted to steal your crunchy corn chips.
And it was one of those things where I thought like, did I dream that [ARUN LAUGHS] or was that really [LAUGHS] – like did that actually exist? [CLIP]: MEL BLANC AS FRITO BANDITO: I am the Frito Bandito. [SOUND OF GUNFIRE] I just find out the Frito Bureau of Investigation looks for me. And they say I am a bad man, that I steal … [SOUND CONTINUES] DAVID SEGAL: An organization called The Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee took great offense at this particular archetype of the kind of oily, smelly Mexican, which for some reason really took off in the ‘60s. And I think this committee decided, we’ve got to put a stop to this, and they drew the line at the Bandito. And so Frito-Lay ordered a makeover. ARUN RATH: But he didn’t become CEO of the company though. DAVID SEGAL: [LAUGHS] No, he didn’t. They shaved him. They fixed his teeth. The ad agency was told to stop making him so leering and sinister. He became kind of friendly and rascally, but still wanted to heist your corn chips. [CLIP]: MEL BLANC AS FRITO BANDITO: How many peoples here got a bag of Fritos with ‘em right now? Raise their right hand? Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. Now Senors, if you just raise the other hand. [MUSIC, GUNFIRE] [END OF CLIP] DAVID SEGAL: The committee was not appeased by this, and they continued their campaign and finally this came to an end when Congress had hearings about ethnic stereotypes on TV, and the Bandito was the sort of star character. And that was it. Frito-Lay pulled the Bandito.
He was replaced by W.C. Frito [LAUGHS] a much less offensive and much less successful spokescharacter. ARUN RATH: Yeah, we all remember W.C. Frito. When did we start to turn the corner on this being generally acceptable? DAVID SEGAL: My hunch is that it was as a result of the civil rights movement. Not only are advertisers thinking what can we say to not offend, but also like, what will appeal? Blacks, as a certain point, had enough money to matter to advertisers. ARUN RATH: So if people are willing to boycott in big enough numbers Aunt Jemima and Rastus and the like, the dollar speaks in the end. DAVID SEGAL: Yeah, I mean this - a really interesting question is, the characters that did endure, why did they endure? There were protests about particularly Aunt Jemima. She’s attracted a lot of antipathy over the years. But it never quite rose to the level where whites and other people who are not black felt embarrassed about buying Aunt Jemima. ARUN RATH: So do you think we’re stuck with these last survivors, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Rastus? DAVID SEGAL: You know, I think we are. I think that they have managed to sort of re-engineer them carefully enough over the years, so that they’re kind of innocuous enough, and kind of grandfathered in somehow. I think very, very few people that go to a supermarket have any idea that Uncle Ben has his roots in this archetype of the Tom, and that Aunt Jemima has her roots in the archetype of the Mammy, and that as a result of that, I think that they ultimately get a pass in perpetuity. ARUN RATH: David, thanks very much. DAVID SEGAL: My pleasure. ARUN RATH: David Segal is a reporter for the Washington Post. His slideshow of racist spokescharacters in Slate will be linked to at onthemedia.org. [CLIP]:
ACTOR: It seems to me you’re extra happy today, Aunt Jemima. AUNT JEMIMA: Well of course, for one thing I’m looking forward to a mighty tuneful song by the chorus. ACTOR: Yes, Aunt Jemima, and here it is. [CHORUS SINGS] [END OF CLIP]