It’s incredible! We didn’t realize it, but Uncle Ben’s just got married in Paris (June 17th)! The marriage was part of another grand scheme cooked up by the multinational (Masterfoods) and staged by its direct marketing agency, C’est Super, to get everyone talking about one of France’s favourite brands (which ranked 6th in terms of notoriety according to a recent study). In mid-June, a long procession of limousines and cabriolets could be seen in the streets of Paris heading towards the Jardin des Tuileries for a regal wedding where journalists had gathered to await the happy couple. Posters announcing the ceremony could be seen all along the route. Newspapers announced the festivities. There was a bounty of press releases. The objective of the campaign was to spotlight the brand’s new line of products, the four new Saveurs sauces, and to raise the public’s brand awareness. Was it racist? No. In bad taste? Most certainly. But, it was also something revolutionary and revealing of a much more complex background story.
We can see in this event not only a glorification of interracial marriages (the bride is white and goes by the name of Mademoiselle Saveur), but also, and most importantly, a complex and profound change in the brand’s communication techniques, which date back to the 1970s. After using the little black girl who gets her ears pulled, the company is now trying to express itself differently. Nevertheless, the brand is a prisoner of its image, which is anchored in the racist Deep South of the United States. A mixed marriage was necessary to break away from the old Louisiana stereotypes. However, as one of the posters along the route demonstrated, old stereotypes do still persist. On the poster, Uncle Ben’s so called mother is shown holding up a photograph of the bride and groom (who are happy, obviously). It is a stereotypical portrait from the Deep South: a floral print dress, a traditional headdress, a « Banania » smile and a simplistic statement; « Uncle Ben’s is getting married today in Paris He’s my son… »
On the one hand, we could take see this as being all good fun and take it at face value. On the other hand, we could look deeper into the historic sense of the operation and seek out the campaign’s new message. Already in 1984, during a national advertising campaign, the central theme of the message was marriage. The poster, designed by Michel Jouin, announced the star advertiser’s wedding, (or that of its daughter): « A worldwide success. A triumph in France Coming soon to your TV ». The bride was a young Afro-American. Whether Uncle Ben’s was the father of the bride or her future husband was unclear. However, she was black. Today she is white. 1984 marked a revolution in terms of the signs and symbols used in advertising. Benetton came out with its famous slogan « All the Colors of the World ». The posters, which transgressed the usual codes for representing « ethnic » groups, were soon to be seen all over France. At the time, the brand of rice that « never sticks » was still stuck in traditional and racist stereotypes. Aware that it is behind the times and that its image is « outdated », the brand is now attempting to create a stir with its direct marketing campaigns. However, the company remains haunted by its past. The « grandmother » is there to remind us of the brand’s history and its identity, which stems from the « Deep South ». The black slave has not broken free from his past, his memories nor his identity simply because he has married someone white. Although the event took place in Paris, Uncle Ben still remains a « Negro », a descendant of slaves.
Behind the gimmick (a marriage or saveurs, or flavours), there is a far more subtle intention. Uncle Ben’s is changing his look and his identity. He is becoming whiter, more Western, more European yet no one is fooled. The marriage (of a young woman to white-haired, older man) seems surreal impossible, a fantasy, utopian, some might say. It’s just a stunt, an exception to the rule. It doesn’t fool anyone. As famous as Uncle Ben’s may be, he can only aspire to marry a white woman for the sake of an advertising stunt (a fake marriage). Yet his mother is proud. She admits it and even bears witness to it in the streets of Paris: « he is my son ». All of this is only possible (for the sporting and cultural elite) in Paris, city of liberté noire (black freedom). Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Paris as a city has allowed the Afro-American, West Indian and African intelligentsia to break the bonds of segregation that exist in colonial societies and America. As we highlighted (with Eric Deroo and Gilles Manceron) in Le Paris noir, Paris is a city with a unique history for which there exists no equivalent in terms of the experience of the black diaspora. Only in Paris can a black person become a boxer, win a gold medal at the Olympics, write, act in films or in theatre, preside over the first Negro congress, be a star on the biggest stage, be a deputy or Minister, be sent to the front to fight alongside whites and marry a white woman as early as 1920. Paris is a city that symbolizes black freedom, despite it also being a city of oppression as it was the capital of the world’s second largest colonial empire. In the introduction to our work in 2001, we wrote the following paradox: « Paris city of light, Paris colonial capital, Paris city of liberties and human rights, Paris the African, Paris city of literature and negritude, Paris city of illegal immigrants, Paris city of paradoxes, extremes and of imagination The everlasting ambiguity between the two Banks, between knowledge and ignorance, white and black, liberty and oppression, Negro balls and the fascination with the « human zoos » in the Jardin d’Acclimatation, between jazz and the colonial exhibition, the black elite and immigrant workers, sports idols and those left behind during the Trente Glorieuses boom years In Paris, dreams of the black diaspora are conceived, become a reality and vanish For over a century, these dreams, whether Afro-American, African or West Indian, have found in Paris a unique meeting point to address the world. Unlike other European and American cities, there were never any black ghettos in Paris or, until very recently, any veritable black districts. » (1) Paris is, without a doubt, the only city in the world where Uncle Ben’s can marry a white woman with as promising a name as Mademoiselle Saveurs
We shall wait for the brand’s next grand scheme to judge its transformation (it has expressed its desire to « give the right tone to the next events »). Two years ago they sent us the little black girl who got her ears pulled (to punish her?), today it’s an interethnic marriage, tomorrow we may just discover that Uncle Ben’s had a white brother. To be continued
(1) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.Pascal Blanchard is the director of the communications agency Les bâtisseurs de mémoire – [email protected]///Article N° : 5708