El COMIDISTA

Spain’s Conguitos candy pushed to rebrand ‘racist’ imagery

A campaign has been launched against the political incorrectness of the chocolate brand‘s mascot amid growing support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. EL PAÍS's El Comidista food blog looks at what's changing both in Spain and abroad

A Conguitos factory.
A Conguitos factory.

A few months ago it was ColaCao, the chocolate drink brand, that ditched its decades-old song about the negrito – a patronizing term for a black man – and replaced it with another jingle devoid of racist overtones. Now, it should be time for Conguitos, a popular Spanish chocolate candy, to follow suit and get rid of its “adorable” mascot as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minnesota. That’s what a petition on the Change.org platform is saying about Lacasa, the company that produces the candy. With almost 5,000 signatures, the initiative has caused a stir on social media, where the disproportionately large red lips of the Conguito caricatures have been remarked upon, as well as the fact that it has taken the death of George Floyd to make us aware in Spain that racism can begin with a bag of sweets.

The mascot was thought up by an ad agency in 1961 – more than 50 years ago. It is dated, like the 1985 Frigo ice cream ad with lyrics including the term negrito, and which is no longer shown on Spanish TV. Or like the caramel custard sold in the 1950s under the brand name Mandarin inside a yellow box, which would be considered highly suspect in this day and age.

On the back of the Black Lives Matter movement, international brands have been taking a closer look at some of their products and rebranding them. Nestlé is renaming the popular Colombian candy Beso de Negra (Kiss of the Black Woman), and Pepsi has announced that its Aunt Jemima products are to get a makeover.

Lacasa and the Belgian Congo

Conguitos is made by Lacasa, which sells other brands of chocolate candy, such as Lacasitos or Mentolín. The company was created in 1852 in Jaca, Huesca, by Antonio Lacasa, the great-grandfather of the current owners. With four factories spread throughout Spain, as well as affiliates in Portugal and France, its annual turnover is around €150 million. To be fair, the name Conguitos is not of their choosing. It came with the Zaragoza company they bought out in 1987.

The name and the imagery were inspired by the Belgian Congo, which had gained independence the previous year. Although the company insists that the image simply represents one conguito sweet on top of another, videos on the company’s YouTube channel quite clearly depict the small cartoon figures involved in tribal activity. Indeed, in an interview with El Periódico de Aragón, Juan Tudela Férez, the man behind the famous mascot, explained that now, “I would not have done it like that. It was an era when it was common to give those kinds of products a touch of the exotic. It was when the Belgian Congo got its independence, and a song about the country became popular.”

Far from considering modifying the imagery, company officials insist on the “adorable nature of the mascot,” adding that: “Since Lacasa Group acquired the product, it has got rid of its original connotations, giving it positive values that are linked to the product and not to any particular race.” To back their argument, they point out that white Conguitos have a white mascot on the packet. But this argument is making little headway with the people behind the Change.org petition, who are demanding a public apology from Lacasa to the black community and suggesting that some corporate profits should be donated to organizations fighting racism.

“The brand has a long, 59-year history and we have all grown up with the slogan ‘Somos los Conguitos’ [We are the Conguitos],” says a statement from Lacasa. “But what we think as manufacturers is of no importance; it is what the consumer thinks that matters, which is why we frequently and systematically gather consumer opinion. And for now, we are seeing that for the vast majority, the values associated with Conguitos are also associated with fun times and positive energy. If we thought that the product or its representation was derisive, we would be the first to change it. However, we sincerely believe that the mascot is respectful to everyone without exception, and that it is accepted and appreciated as such.”

Lacasa believes that most Spaniards – usually white – have a certain fondness for the Conguitos mascot, an opinion that shared by the regional chief of Industry, Trade and Development of Aragón, Arturo Aliaga, and by the far-right political party Vox. But what about the country’s minorities?

The voice of non-whites

If Conguitos is no longer to be called Conguitos, does this mean that brown sugar is under suspicion? Or that Valencian blanquet (white) sausage is a symbol of Aryan purity? Let’s use common sense. It is the association of a race with values generally based on unfounded clichés with no biological basis that is politically incorrect. The concepts of hyper-sexualization, cannibalism and animalization have long been exploited by the coffee and chocolate industry with regard to people of color, not only during colonial times, but also in contemporary advertising.

“The problem with the adorable Conguitos figure is that it is only adorable for people who are not black. There was a ‘They called me Conguito in school too’ Facebook group once and it wasn’t exactly funny,” notes the writer and activist Lucia Asué Mbomio.

Mbomio does not understand how Lacasa can deny the human aspect of the mascot as “in certain ads, it speaks a language that’s meant to sound African and still has a spear shape in its hand.” Even the name itself has negative connotations – “It means ‘small’ Congo, besides the fact that the Belgian Congo was the site of one of the greatest genocides in recent history, with forced labor and the mutilation of human beings,” she says.

The Conguitos caricature that exaggerates the features of black people is known to have shocked people outside of Spain too. For example, on Twitter in 2017, a young Welshman wrote: “There is a strange racist chocolate in Spain called ‘Little Congolese.’”

According to Mbomio: “We have normalized things that have rarely been discussed since complaints have been labeled the result of thin skins. That is how advertising has become just another pillar supporting an image of black people associated with underdevelopment, poverty or savagery. And that view doesn’t allow us to advance.”

The Afro-feminist communications expert Desirée Bela-Lobedde agrees. “Lacasa needs to recognize that the origin of Conguitos’ identity is racist,” she says. As for the use of culture in advertising, she feels that “if it becomes a source of insult to an entire community, it is offensive.” In fact, she finds the idea of donating part of the company’s profits to the fight against racism entirely rational. “It’s a way of raising awareness and making amends,” she says. “There are companies that focus their corporate social responsibility on environmental issues. But when it comes to racism, nobody does anything, because nobody considers themselves to be racist.”

“Forward-looking societies and the private companies that are part of them must take measures to make amends to the groups that have historically been damaged,” says Maitane Arnoso, the president of the Guipúzcoa branch of the non-profit group SOS Racismo. “What was thought a few years ago to be requetebien [super] – is fortunately now considered requetemal [terrible]. As in other contexts, it is necessary to implement restorative measures.” She adds that this would involve “apologizing for the damage caused and owning up to the profits made from the use of racist images. When it comes to these issues, what is important is not just how to address the past, but how to move toward the future. To move from the politics of gestures to the politics of action and anti-racist commitment.”

Rebranding

Can a product be racist simply because it exists? As an article in the journal Puro Marketing says: “The time has come to ask ourselves how cultural racism is unconsciously linked to our DNA.” Stereotypes are intrinsic to many products, and we often cannot detect them because we see them all the time, and even consider them part of our childhood. Then suddenly, #BlackLivesMatter takes off and we see everything from a different angle.

The journalist Patricia Moreno and the designer África Pitarch are behind the project Somos unas Exageradas, which advises brands, agencies and the media on diversity, inclusiveness, feminism and racism. “It’s time to bring all those conversations that were on the back burner to the fore. The time is right,” they say. “Although there are many racially aware voices that are doing great things educationally, we white people treat this issue as if it had little to do with us, when, in fact, it is a structural and endemic issue.”

This is not the first time that Lacasa has been criticized for its Conguitos imagery, and it seems that they have run out of wiggle room. “We are no longer discussing whether it is racist or not; it is racist, period,” say Moreno and Pitarch. “We are talking about cultural appropriation, because it is not a Congolese product that has a positive impact on the community, but a large company, in the hands of a white family, that stigmatizes and treats Congolese people as pets.”

The South African human rights activist and cleric, Desmond Tutu, believed that remaining neutral in the face of injustice puts you on the side of the oppressor. According to this line of thought, the worst thing a brand can do is nothing. “Silence is also a position and it implies a lack of sensitivity to social criticism,” say Moreno and Pitarch. “The right thing to do would be to admit the wrong and then launch a 360º campaign for analysis and change.”

When it comes to rebranding the product, they suggest relying on people from the community of African descent, “which exists in Spain and has a real presence.” What are now known as Conguitos should be renamed, accordingly. “They have no excuse for not revamping, beyond what is comfortable,” say Moreno and Pitarch.

Scrapping the racism

As for Aunt Jemima, Spaniards do not generally eat pancakes for breakfast, but Americans and Mexicans have grown up with a black woman’s face stamped on their breakfast syrups and flours. In 1890, Nancy Green, the daughter of a Kentucky slave family, was hired to be the face of the brand. As the years went by, Aunt Jemima went from being portrayed as a “colonial mammy“ to an elegant woman with pearl earrings, but no matter. Pepsi bought the firm in 2001 and has recently got rid of Aunt Jemima altogether – a decision that has been applauded by American society.

Mars, which owns Uncle Ben’s rice products, has taken note and recently came out with a statement. “We recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.” Consequently, they are ridding themselves of the “Uncle Tom” black farmer image that has helped to sell it since the 1940s.

The Black Lives Matter movement is powering forward and companies are clearly bending to the pressure. Outside the food sector, Colgate-Palmolive has ditched Darlie toothpaste – originally known as Darkie.

Of course, no one is to blame for what their grandfather or father did, but we do have a responsibility when it comes to making any necessary changes. The world is moving fast and, according to the laws of evolution, only those brands that adapt to the new ecosystem – environmental, sexual and, of course, racial – will survive.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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