Sometimes it seems the long struggle to force the NFL’s Washington Redskins franchise to change its name is destined to fail.
Many Minnesotans remember the scene in 1992, when the American Indian Movement and its supporters organized symposiums and protests to coincide with the Washington team’s Super Bowl appearance at the Metrodome. Nothing changed then. The Redskins remained the Redskins — and 22 years later, the team and its fans continue to embrace a name and a logo that many others consider blatantly offensive.
It would be easy to conclude that protest against corporate misappropriation of American Indian culture is futile.
But it’s not. It has worked before. And a few of the most memorable success stories played out here in Minnesota.
In 1964, Minneapolis-based Pillsbury introduced a new line of powdered soft-drink mixes to compete with Kool-Aid. Pillsbury called its new, sugar-free product Funny Face. (Its artificial sweetener, sodium cyclamate, was later linked to cancer and banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but that’s a different story.) Each Funny Face flavor was named for a silly character: Goofy Grape, Loud-Mouth Lime, Freckle-Face Strawberry, Rootin’-Tootin’ Raspberry and two others that soon created major public-relations headaches at Pillsbury:
Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange.
The Chinese Cherry character was a slant-eyed red cherry with buckteeth and a pigtail. Injun Orange, with his crossed eyes, skewed war paint and limp feathers, smiled insipidly in a nearly perfect distillation of negative Indian stereotypes. Both characters, along with their less-offensive product linemates, were big hits with kids and parents alike.
But this was the height of the modern civil rights era. Minority groups were finding their voices, and they were not inclined to let corporate America get away with insensitive and insulting marketing campaigns. In early 1966, the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) called on Pillsbury to dump both Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry. The group claimed that the two characters’ “derogatory nature” was “highly objectionable.”
It was only after the AAIA went public with its anti-Funny-Face campaign that Pillsbury announced it was already phasing out the two characters. It turned out that several other groups, including Chinese-American grocers in Sacramento, Calif., had filed similar complaints. “We admit guilt all over the lot,” a Pillsbury spokesman said. “It was in poor taste. We quickly saw our fault and as early as last July we decided to change the names.” Chinese Cherry became Choo Choo Cherry. Injun Orange turned into Jolly Olly Orange.
If the campaign to dispatch Injun Orange had constituted the only successful protest against corporate-perpetuated Indian stereotypes, then perhaps it would make sense to write off as unwinnable the current campaign against the Washington Redskins name. But Pillsbury was just one in a string of companies that were convinced to change their stereotyping ways in the 1960s and beyond.
In 1965, Calvert Distillers, under pressure from the AAIA and other Indian groups, dropped a “soft whiskey” ad that read in part: “The Indians didn’t call whiskey firewater for nothing. Why do you think they were yelping all the time?” A year later, the AAIA scored a similar victory against toy manufacturer Louis Marx and Co. over its vulgar children’s doll called “Nutty Mad Indian.”
And in 1967, Roger Jourdain, chairman of Minnesota’s Red Lake Band of Chippewa, helped convince General Electric to pull an ad featuring rambunctious white youngsters dressed in Indian costumes. The copy for the ad read: “When you decide to shoot wild Indians, you can’t afford to miss.”
Of course, Pillsbury, Calvert, Marx and General Electric were not football franchises. They did not have rabid fans, steeped in the “traditions” that a team name and logo can come to represent. But those companies — and many others over the years — have succumbed to pressure after realizing they failed to consider the damage their marketing might do.
It’s not hard to imagine that the NFL team from Washington will eventually do the same.
Dave Kenney is a writer in Roseville.