Years ago I was hired by the ad agency that handled the Uncle Ben's Rice account. The client, and the agency, wanted to do a campaign that used Uncle Ben as a spokesperson.
Not a bad idea since Uncle Ben had automatic branding and his name has been around for more than 50 years.
But it was an opportunity not without its own challenges. There was the issue of race. This is never a minor issue, nor should it be.
First, a little brand primer.
Back in 1947, not a great time in race relations at all, a group of ad executives from Leo Burnett thought it would be a good idea to give the Uncle Ben's brand a face. This was the Leo Burnett formula. They had also given birth to the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy to name a few.
They asked the a maitre de, an African-American man, at a Chicago restaurant if he'd liked to be photographed for $500 and one day's worth of shooting. The man agreed. And Uncle Ben, with all its negative connotations, was born.
Fast forward to 2007.
We, the ad agency, suggested that since the character was strictly fictional we could take liberty and make Uncle Ben the fictional CEO of the company. Not unlike the way Jack was made the CEO of Jack in the Box.
By putting him in a high executive position we would take some of the onus off the obvious missteps of 1947. The real Chief Marketing Officer for Uncle Ben's, an African American man, agreed.
100 scripts and 6 months worth of casting later, we found ourselves shooting a dozen commercials on a sound stage in Culver City. These were not expensive commercials. But they weren't inexpensive either. Sadly, no one will ever see them. Because a week before they were due to air, the client shelved the whole project.
Despite testing extremely well in focus groups, the client caved in to pressure from special interest groups. Even though we were trying to right a wrong, these groups claimed the CEO character was offensive. They said we should have given Ben a last name. And that we should have put him in a better suit, without the bow tie.
Really? A last name and a sport coat would have fixed everything?
At one point we had discussed an Armani suit, but the client thought we would have to change all the packaging. And that could get quite costly. We even suggested dropping Uncle from the name. Or changing Uncle Ben from an African American man to a Caucasian man, thus eliminating any controversy whatsoever.
But in the mixed up world of racial arithmetic, those ideas were met by objections as well.
And so what was offensive before, was never corrected. Or even addressed. And to this day it remains patently offensive. But apparently it's less offensive than it would have been had we made Ben a Chief Executive Officer.
It appears we don't live in a post-racial world. And perhaps we never will.
Well the client is no longer with the ad agency. And several of the producers and other creatives with the project have already posted these spots on their portfolio pages, so I guess there's no harm in sharing them with you. And as you'll see, they were always quite harmless in the first place: