- Not to be confused with the Uncle Ben character from Spider-Man comics.
Uncle Ben is a brand name for parboiled (“converted”) rice and related food products. Owned by Mars, Inc. in the U.S. by its subsidiary Masterfoods, the brand was first used by a company called Converted Rice Inc. which was later bought by Mars. It is based in Houston, Texas.
Uncle Ben’s rice was first marketed in 1943 and was the top-selling rice in the United States from 1950 until the 1990s.
When white South Carolina
planters were unable to make their rice crops thrive, “slaves
from West Africa
’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.” In the American South, whites
once commonly referred to elderly black
men as uncle
even though they were not blood relatives. During the later 20th century, this was considered patronizing and demeaning and was widely deprecated. Moreover, during the 1940s, black people
were popularly associated with rice. In the later 1800s, African-Americans were often featured as company mascots for agricultural and other products in the United States. This kind of market branding has continued, though to a lesser extent, into the 21st century.
Uncle Ben’s products carry the image of an elderly African-American man dressed in a bow tie, perhaps meant to imply a domestic servant in the Aunt Jemima tradition, or maybe a Chicago maitre d’hotel named Frank Brown. According to Mars, Uncle Ben was an African-American rice grower in Texas known for the quality of his rice. Gordon L. Harwell, an entrepreneur who had supplied rice to the armed forces in World War II, chose the name Uncle Ben’s as a means to expand his marketing efforts to the general public. The Mars company has not supplied any further biographical detail about the Uncle Ben persona.
Uncle Ben's promotion
After 61 years as a servant/ maitre d’hotel/ farmer, in March 2007 Uncle Ben's image was "promoted" to the "chairman of the board" by a new advertising campaign designed to distance the brand from its stereotyped iconography depicting a domestic servant. A visit to the company website revealed a set of impressive double doors and a plaque reading "Chairman." The doors open to reveal an upper-executive style office overlaid with a welcome message from Uncle Ben which begins, "Hello, I'm Uncle Ben." The name plate on the desk also reads "Chairman" and a portrait of the iconic marketing image hangs on the back wall. The boardroom is interactive, allowing visitors to click on sundry objects for additional information.