Is “Uncle” Ben’s Madison Ave. Make-over Really Just a Gloss-over?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

the HNIC Report     

 It may come as a surprise to you that – between my daily meetings, my  Chairman functions and my everyday obligations running a worldwide rice company – I would have any time to take notice of exemplary employee behavior, but I do. In particular, I have been keeping a keen eye on the new young man working in the mail room. He is energetic, friendly and unusually prompt, all promotion-worthy attributes. Please make sure his paycheck envelope includes a complimentary coupon redeemable for a package of our delicious 90-second microwavable READY RICE®.

The above is ripped straight from the desktop computer screen of “Ben,” the new fictional Chairman of Uncle Ben’s Rice. Yes, the revamped Uncle Ben is no longer just the face on the box: he is the man behind the brand. Peep the following e-mail “Ben” sent to one of his virtual employees:

Scott, I have reviewed your proposal for reducing the time it takes to parboil our ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice. While I am always welcome to new ideas and I am glad your team is trying to reduce costs, we have a covenant with the consumer to produce rice that is Perfect Every Time®. Any deviance from that promise, even one that could save us millions of dollars, is simply unacceptable. I thank you for your time.

Not only does the bow-tied Chairman Ben– he has no last name– keep an eye on the little people in the company, he is also more concerned with the quality of his product than the millions of dollars he could potentially save the company. Exactly what kind of chairman is Ben supposed to be? Common sense says one who’s not interested in remaining chairman for long.

The Question

All jokes aside, the Mars Corporation’s latest make-over of Uncle Ben has people miffed. Critics, commentators and bloggers honestly don’t get what the point of reviving Ben is, much less why the company is spending $20 million dollars to market this new “iconic” image of the anachronistic rice grower? Does Madison Avenue honestly believe black folks are so desperate for positive role models that they would embrace ‘Boardroom Ben’ simply because he’s the pretend HNIC of the company and forget the offensive origins behind the image?

The History

And what about the painful past from which the name “uncle” springs? Uncle was a term used by southerners to refer to elderly black men. It was yet another way of lumping black men together in one insidious and dismal pot of prejudice. Just like young black men were all called “boy,” older black men could be called “uncle” and older black women “aunt.” The intention behind those terms was always the same: They were subtle reminders that one’s name, one’s individual identity, was irrelevant, unimportant. And it is in part because of the insensitive, demeaning treatment blacks received in those days that the ‘re-naming’ process became such an important part of the healing blacks went through in the Civil Rights era. For black folks, the capacity to name’s one self – be it El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (formerly Malcolm Little), Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay), Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (Lew Alcindor) – is tied to shedding the shackles of a dark past and stepping into the light of one’s glorious future. No matter how it’s sugarcoated, Uncle Ben is a vestige of the time when black people could not define themselves in anyway that reflected their inner desires and for that reason alone no amount of revamping him will do.

But I digress.

Maybe I’m taking this too seriously.

But maybe I’m not.

Stick with me for a moment.

The Danger

What’s becoming increasingly evident as the 21st Century rolls along is that the media has a heavy investment in portraying the racial problem within America as a thing of the past. Television and film feed us a steady diet of interracial dating, intimate interracial social interaction, and minority upward mobility even though the day to day experience of people living in even the biggest and most cosmopolitan American cities reflects a totally different reality. A large part of Barack Obama’s appeal lies in the “uniter” rhetoric he both embodies and espouses. Now Corporate America – in cahoots with highly paid African-American figureheads who routinely validate their employer’s actions – is attempting to gloss over a racially sensitive issue to sell their products. And they are doing so believing that so long as they are culturally and ethnically sensitive, everything is okay. Well, there are many, myself included, who would disagree; many who struggled to shut these incredibly dangerous stereotypes down who feel it’s not ever going to be okay.

The Real Deal

Although Mars masks its decision behind the usual corporate-speak colloquialism – the company’s research showed that consumers felt a “positive emotional connection” with the name and the portrait, associating them with “quality, family, timelessness and warmth” – there is a bigger reason why the company can’t and won’t let go of a subservient black image that harkens to the days of Jim Crow and slavery. The Uncle Ben’s brand makes lots and lots of money for Mars. In the 1990s as Mars lost market share to its longtime rival Hershey, and its pet food concern struggled to compete, Uncle Ben’s emerged as the company’s best-performing subsidiary. Currently, the brand controls roughly one-fourth of the United States market for dry rice and ranks #1 in both Great Britain and France. The product can be found in more than 100 countries worldwide. and is produced in facilities in Australia, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium, not to mention the United States. At the end of the day, it all comes down to money.  Consider this: Up until this recent move the Uncle Ben’s website was closed to the public. Now, all of a sudden, the company is practically begging people to visit Ben in his office.

Using Uncle Ben’s image is much more a matter of market necessity than it is adoration for his smiling image. After protests, the picture was shrunk from a box-sized image to a small image at the top of the box. In the ’80s the image disappeared altogether. Now, two decades later, and as more brands are beginning to elbow their way into the market, testing consumer loyalty like it’s never been tested before, Ben is back and bigger than ever?! Looked at in this light, there is a certain desperation in spending $20 million dollars to market Ben as a Board Chairman, and a certain dishonesty in Ben’s telling his employee that the company’s “covenant with the consumer” trumps its money-making prerogative.

One Last Question

Was Frank C. Brown, the Chicago restaurant maitre d’ who agreed to pose for the original Uncle Ben’s portrait, was ever remunerated for the company’s unfettered exploitation of his likeness or whether his family receives some sort of annual remittance for the company’s global use of his countenance. Somehow I seriously doubt it.

To check out the NY Times article click here

To visit Uncle Ben’s sprawling new executive suite click here