Last week Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve brands, announced it is selling the Southern Comfort brand to the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company. Many will see this as a homecoming for Southern Comfort.
The original recipe for the whiskey-flavored liqueur is credited to a New Orleans bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron who created the concoction in 1874, which he named “Cuffs and Buttons.” Heron later moved to Memphis where he began bottling his recipe in 1889, and renamed it “Southern Comfort.”
SoCo, as it’s often called, has stiff competition from flavored whiskeys and has seen a decline in sales in recent years. But it wasn’t always the case.
Southern Comfort enjoyed a major boost in 1939 when it became one of several companies that tied their brands to the enormously successful film Gone with the Wind. In the case of SoCo, it was the creation of the “Scarlet O’Hara Cocktail.”
The drink, made with cranberry juice and Southern Comfort with a squeeze of lime, was marketed as the “Grand Old Drink from the South.” The then New York-based distributors of the brand suggested that customers “try it in a Scarlet O’Hara cocktail, but no more than two lest you be Gone with the Wind.”
Because SoCo is sweet, it has long had the reputation of being more appealing to women. It was certainly a favorite of ’60s rocker Janis Joplin.
So a few years ago, Southern Comfort sought to increase sales among men with the commercial called “Whatever’s Comfortable.”
While the commercial caught people’s attention, it didn’t draw much of a new male customer base.
It will be interesting to see what Sazerac does in its marketing of Southern Comfort now that it’ll be back in the Crescent City. Personally, I’d recommend some heritage marketing that ties it back to the place where it all began.
When developers try to employ history and heritage as a marketing tool, they often get it very wrong. This is the case with the former Loray Mill now being repurposed into lofts in the town of Gastonia, North Carolina, just west of Charlotte. Alex Cummings, who grew up there, offers his own personal history with the town as well as poignant reminders of Gastonia’s economic and labor struggles.
My family moved to North Carolina in the late 1980s, having left a stagnant and hopeless West Virginia in search of greater economic opportunities. My mom and grandparents and I first tried Indiana for a few years, but eventually left for the greener shores of the Sunbelt. We came to Gastonia, a modest-sized former textile town (it once boasted of having “more looms and spindles within its hundred-mile radius than… any other southern city”) in the greater Charlotte metropolitan area. An aunt and uncle had already paved the way for us, in a sort of internal chain-migration, leaving WV for NC several years before. I once asked my mom why Suzy and Jim had settled on Gastonia as a place to live, and I’ll never forget her answer:
It’s about as far as you can get from Charleston on a tank of gas.
Pop South welcomes this post by Joshua Rothman, professor of history at the University of Alabama.
Although I feel very fortunate to have a job where I actually get paid to teach courses on the American South, slavery, and memory to college students, there is one thing about being a professor of southern history that gets more grating every time I do it. Roughly once a year, I make myself (and my students) watch Gone with the Wind (GWTW). I could assign the book, of course, but the film really is the elephant in the room where American popular cultural memories of slavery reside.
Even now, seventy-five years after its release in 1939, the images of the intrepid belle Scarlett O’Hara, the embattled and torched city of Atlanta, the sympathetic scoundrel Rhett Butler, and the heartless Yankee invaders form the core of how a significant number of Americans, and particularly white Americans, imagine the South to have looked and operated during the era of the Civil War. And in my more generous moments, I concede that it’s not hard to understand why.
The film is sweeping and epic in its scope, drenched in color, and filled with so many iconic lines of dialog, characters, and screenshots that after a while it simply washes over you. It becomes beautiful, seductive and, superficially at least, nearly immune to critical engagement. There’s just one problem, of course. The film is racist as hell. The legendary performances of Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen notwithstanding, a clear-eyed viewer recognizes GWTW as a fantastical reading of the lives of the richest people in the antebellum South that one can only believe and fall in love with by denying how the real life O’Haras collectively subjected millions of black people to cruel violence and systematic exploitation to make their lives possible.
Which—and here I’m making a transition that I never thought I would make and did not actually think was possible—brings me to Blake Lively, a 27 year-old actress. I am uncertain of whether I ought to be proud or embarrassed to admit that before the other day I was not entirely sure who or what a Blake Lively was. Apparently she is in some television shows and movies that I have never seen, and she has parlayed that into running a “lifestyle” website called Preserve whose goals are things like “support[ing] the America we’ve always known, and the one we haven’t yet met.” It’s a site, in other words, that sells $80 t-shirts, $45 jars of sugar, and $325 floral teepees for children, all of which are “curated” for the consumer who doesn’t have enough overpriced and precious things in his or her life. It parodies itself, really, and is usually easy to ignore.
But this fall, Preserve proudly brings you the “Allure of Antebellum,” a fashion collection inspired by the “southern charm” and the “authenticity” of the “Southern belle.” These were the women, the website observes, who possessed “inherent social distinction [that] set the standards for style and appearance” and “epitomized Southern hospitality with a cultivation of beauty and grace, but even more with a captivating and magnetic sensibility.” Want a piece of that? Well, then, “embrace the season and the magic below the Mason-Dixon with styles as theatric as a Dixie drawl.”
The problem here isn’t the clothes. Indeed, how exactly stiletto heels, triangular earrings that look strikingly like the Star Trek insignia, and a leopard print skirt evoke belles or the antebellum South is a complete mystery, though the site claims it has something to do with “artful layering,” and I regret to inform you that that skirt is currently sold out. The problem is not even necessarily that Preserve proffers fashion purportedly inspired by a historical ruling class that sat atop its world by preying upon and slowly draining the life out of those they deemed inferiors, as arguably many fashions across time and space owe themselves to similar inspirations.
The problem is that at our current historical moment, the failures of the United States to reckon effectively with its particular legacy of slavery, and its seeming determination to perpetuate elements of that legacy in its public policy a century and a half after slavery’s demise, as evidenced most alarmingly in our criminal justice system, are glaringly on display. To glom onto that legacy culturally and materially, and to sell it back to American consumers—not merely with a total lack of self-awareness but as an aspirational virtue—may be a longstanding tradition in its own right.
But it is more than in bad taste. It’s rubbing it in.
Historical sensibility does not seem to be the strong suit of Preserve, and I would venture that whoever conceived the “Allure of Antebellum” campaign and wrote its insipid ad copy had no malicious intent. But even casual ignorance and unintentional callousness deserve to be called out. It’s long past time to leave Scarlett O’Hara behind.
One of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe. Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”
Yes and no.
The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky. According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana. So, yes, the story is a creation.
Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box. The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.
If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.
It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe. This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.
But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short. It is even on her gravestone.
Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.” The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.” She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.
The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract. Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.
*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.
During the 1970s, The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the most popular shows on American television, and while Bo and Luke Duke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat, respectively) were technically the stars of the show, the real star was their car. The 1969 orange Dodge Charger sped through the back roads of Georgia, leaping over hay bales, creeks, or other cars, nearly always getting “the boys” out of a jam. It was one of the most iconic vehicles ever to hit the small screen and its name was “the General Lee,” a nod to the most beloved of white Southern heroes, Robert E. Lee. And emblazoned on the roof was a large Confederate battle flag.
Well, no more.
In a new commercial for Autotrader.com, the “Duke boys” are back and so is their car. They are driving the hell out of that Dodge Charger to escape “the law,” but the car can’t seem to outrun these new police vehicles, so Luke pulls out his phone to search for a newer, faster, car on Autotrader.com.
But something is obviously missing. The “General Lee” has been stripped of its battle flag–at least the camera doesn’t allow you to see it. And the commercial lets us know that Autotrader ad execs also know that even while they wanted to use such an iconic car to advertise their business, that flag is a divisive symbol.
Who is their target audience for this commercial? According to an article on Bulldog Reporter, a website for public relations professionals, the commercial uses nostalgia to draw in people who, when they were kids, were tuned into The Dukes of Hazzard. I get that. They are also targeting consumers who like muscle cars. I get that, too. Yet, the article says nothing about the absence of the flag, which they’d just as soon not draw attention to.
In a separate Autotrader article, the writer tells the story of a how former NBA player, Jalen Rose, owned one of the many “General Lee” cars that exist. Rose, an African American, planned to sell the car at auction. As the article points out, he removed the flag “for obvious reasons.” It seems as though Autotrader doesn’t really want to discuss what those reasons are although, to save face, it does want you to know that at least one black man owned one of these cars.
So, we might think Autotrader was smart enough not to allow its brand to be tarnished by the battle flag, but has the company really fooled anyone?
Just as the car is associated with the television show, the battle flag is associated with the car–as well as having some unsavory historical ties to slavery and segregation. Fans of the show are unlikely to appreciate that the flag is hidden from view, while those who know its place in pop culture–and history–recognize that it’s gone missing.
This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.
The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:
“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”
The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.” And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.
A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s. He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.” (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer. There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.
What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.
He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.
Since Pop South isn’t a paying gig, I don’t always post items as quickly as I’d like. I’ve got a real job that needs attending to, which means that I’m a little slow to blogging about those stories that are on my mind. Like rapper Kanye West sporting a Confederate battle flag on his jacket. And, 12 Years a Slave.
Speaking of which, what a powerful film. The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on true events in the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery. But it is so much more. Based on Northrup’s narrative, the story itself is an amazing tale of survival. Yet the greater story is how the brutality of slavery damages the humanity of everyone associated with the system–from the slave owners to the enslaved, the slave catchers and the slave buyers, men and women. This is the institution that the Confederacy sought to preserve.
Which brings me back to Kanye and that flag. Not just any ol’ Confederate flag, of which there are several, but the Confederate battle flag. Because we know Kanye enjoys a battle, especially when his ego is involved or, more importantly, his wallet. Some have called this move “genius.” He would agree. Controversy = publicity = $$$.
What I find disconcerting is how willfully ignorant West is about the flag’s meaning. His public response to using it is to say: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag! It’s my flag! Now what are you going to do?” Yea, Kanye, it represented slavery “in a way,” and it’s also been co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan, segregationists, and Neo-Nazis. In essence, you’ve cast your lot with them, too.
But, wait. He doesn’t care about that. In a more recent interview he said as much. “You don’t ever know what I’m trying to do. Black people stopping other black people from getting checks. . .Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag on that type of level.” Perhaps, but I don’t think we’re out of the (pecker)woods yet.
This brings me back to 12 Years a Slave. Kanye West needs to see this film. Over and over again. Perhaps then, he’ll get why he’s wrong about the meaning of the Confederate flag. He may never admit to it publicly, but in his heart, he will know.