The Dark Side of Brand Names
Political correctness—and the scrutiny of language it spawned—might not be the cultural neurosis it was in the early 90’s, but we’re still sensitive to it. Except when it comes to certain brand names. These names, like all brand names, are able to acquire their own meaning and associations over time. But taken out of their fuzzy, protective brand context, they have unintended—and often unfortunate—associations.
Without further ado, here is a short list of brand names whose questionable derivations many of us tend to forget or ignore.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary provides the following definition: “a small dependent country usually of the tropics; especially: one run despotically.” A pejorative expression, “banana republic” connotes human and environmental rights violations, foreign exploitation, and dictatorships. We think merino V-neck sweaters and sheath dresses.
Considered a racial slur by Native American groups, the name continues to be used by the NFL, in spite of attempts by opponents to have the trademark revoked. And in spite of other teams having changed their racially offensive names.
The company states on its website: “The ‘Quaker man’ is not an actual person. His image is that of a man dressed in the Quaker garb.”(1) Positive associations with the Religious Society of Friends (the proper name for Quakerism) aside, the name and image have been criticized for stereotyping a religious group that has no connection to the brand or product.
Uncle Ben’s Rice
In the American South, the term “uncle” was often used for elderly African American men (see: Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus). Paired with the image of a smiling, bow-tied black man on the package, the name quickly construes the racial stereotype of an ingratiating house servant. To counteract this stereotype, Mars, Inc. has recently “promoted” Uncle Ben to a fictitious boardroom in their advertising and marketing.
A brand name owned, interestingly, by Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima was first described in marketing materials as a former slave.(2) Her name and original likeness (she’s had several makeovers) characterized Jemima as a stereotypical “mammy” of the antebellum South and projected a regrettable nostalgia for slavery. In spite of this antecedent, the product name is still used.
Red Man Chewing Tobacco
The packaging depicts an Indian in feathered headdress whose image serves to illustrate the name—a derogatory catchall term for tribes and ethnic groups indigenous to North America.
Fritos Corn Chips
For a short time, the product name was paired with Frito Bandito, a character based on the stereotype of the Mexican bandit. Following pressure from Mexican American opponents, the cartoon image was retired. But the product name lives on.
Northwest Orient Airlines
You might remember Northwest Airlines’ former moniker, which was actually a brand name, not the company’s legal name. The “Orient” was dropped in the 1980s to reflect Northwest’s status as a national and international megacarrier. Fortunately, the loss of “Orient” was also the loss of a dated term that, according to critics, inaccurately homogenizes several different Asian countries and cultures.
Thus the power of brands and their names. For many of us, brand associations can eclipse a name’s literal meaning or derivation. We forget the negative and remember the positive. And that’s why companies are often unwilling to abandon the equity they’ve built into otherwise questionable names.
(1) http://www.quakeroats.com/about-quaker-oats/content/quaker-faq.aspx retrieved November 5, 2009
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aunt_Jemima retrieved November 5, 2009