Last Monday, Oreo posted on Facebook a photograph of a rainbow-colored cookie, a statement of support for LGBT causes. In doing so, the company joins the ranks of dozens of others, including Coca-Cola, Google, Wells Fargo, and Walgreens, who have embraced the gay community. This has, of course, sparked outrage from certain opposition groups, some claiming that Oreo is, “Yet another liberal company destroying our religious values and teaching immorality.” Others are excited about the trend, seeing corporate support of the Gay Civil Rights cause as a stepping stone to ultimate acceptance within American culture.
What’s puzzling about the Oreo-coming out, however, is not that they did support gay rights, not that some were outraged, nor that some applauded, but what’s really strange is the wave of disappointment, even on the progressive side, as to the content of Oreo’s statement. It seems that the idea of a tasty rainbow-colored Oreo cookie overshadowed much of the significance of the symbol, and many expressed wishes that Oreo would actually MAKE the cookie. “Too bad they don’t actually make the cookie :(” was someone’s response on the Kraft Facebook feed. “Six layers,” mused a user, sadly, “That would be like THREE Double Stufs!”
Ok, some of us took the wrong message home on that one, but those that did shouldn’t blame themselves too much. Though Oreo’s statement prompted an op-ed in just about every media venue, it isn’t as if this hasn’t happened before. Most people can see the parallels between the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and the current struggle for equal rights in LGBT communities; companies have done this sort of thing in the past, so why not now? Let’s take a quick look at how companies used various Civil Rights movements to sell their products in the past.
In the first twenty years of the 20th century, some women were beginning to feel stifled by the Victorian mores that dictated that they remain chaste, innocent, and free from worldly vice. Some women didn’t feel guilty when they kissed a man, some smoked in public, and some weren’t ashamed to show that they enjoyed sex. This desire for self-expression became the foundation for a new identity for women, a new role apart from the traditional. Capital, not culture, came to their support. Companies struggled to catch up to the New Woman, accepting her as she was, offering her cigarettes and stockings. They asked her, “How’s your breath today?”, knowing that she may be kissing later (see Figure 1). Movies, books, and novels were created for her. A country girl wanting a glimpse of this could buy her way temporarily into New Womanhood. Even before her father, brother, or minister were ready to accept the New Woman, companies were embracing her, and her place in the culture was established before the reactionaries (for example, Hollywood’s Will Hays) could do anything about it. She stuck around, forming the foundation for many feminist movement to come; she is still felt in nations struggling to accept the rights of women.
Black Americans, however, found less ready acceptance from advertising. Minstrel-styled black mascots can be seen on many cooking products through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and much Southernalia (canned yams, tobacco, etc.) had on its packaging the grotesquely-caricatured visage of a black person(See Figure 2). Black Americans, or the white idea of them, were being used to market to white consumers. Rather than opting for a progressive stance, companies during the early part of the last century reinforced racial stereotypes of black people.
There were, during this time, black-oriented periodicals that advertised exclusively to black audiences.
Local businesses in black neighborhoods had been advertising to their black clientele for decades. Following WWII, products for Black Americans were marketed on a vast scale to urban communities. It was not uncommon for a company to do a “white version” of an ad separately from the “black version.” Black Americans remained an isolated niche market. (See Figure 3)
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s that Black Americans were seen in advertisements in major periodicals as people with equal footing in society. Slowly, the servile black stock character gave way to a modern Black American, a person with grace and dignity, the possibility for social mobility, and a unique cultural heritage. Some companies took advantage of the mistakes of others. When Woolworth’s refused to allow black patrons, other stores found unsubtle ways of advertising that they were of a more progressive mind. Companies appropriated slogans of the movement to show their support (See Figure 4). Black Americans, as well as Native Americans, Asian Americans, and others, were shown in advertisements with no referent to their race, as individuals existing in a multicultural society.
Some companies even found interesting ways to address the traditional notions of race without offense. Levy’s Real Jewish Rye issued an ingenious ad showing people of different cultures eating bread. The slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”; it is a beautiful, modern thought (See Figure 5). In America, one shouldn’t have to be Jewish to love Rye Bread, or Vietnamese to love Pho, or black to love the music of Otis Redding, or white to enjoy James Bond marathons on TBS.
Modern advertising pursued the multiculturalism of the 1960’s and extended logically into the burgeoning LGBT communities (See Figure 6). As those communities seek legal validation from our governments, companies are often willing to support them. This works out well for the companies, who get to seem quite progressive, and it leaves an impact on the culture such that the less tolerant are forced to confront their ideas.
When advertising makes a statement, it should be a positive, inclusive one. Some companies today go on silly, moralistic quests, and in the process, alienate potential customers. Chic-Fil-A, for example, known for its staunch Christian-influenced policies, gave loads of money to the Marriage & Family Legacy Fund, devoted to preventing the legal recognition of gay marriages. This is troublesome in that in validates an intolerance of a community. It might be lame that Oreo isn’t REALLY making a rainbow-colored cookie, but at least that inclusion is there. Perhaps this time, those of us who were upset not to get a new kind of cookie took for granted that companies would support civil rights, because we do. But really, making a statement of this kind at all is a remarkable thing, and I’d rather they fill the air with it instead of my stomach with rainbow cream.