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Early American

The Commercialization of the Native American

1      Introduction

Popular perceptions of what it means to be Indian, or Native American, has been shaped and reinforced by a variety of strategies, some of which have relied on the written word and others on imagery.  Commerce, as the stereotyping of the other through corporate logos, brand images and advertising, has functioned as an important purveyor of American Indian stereotypes. Indeed, close to eight decades ago, Larson (1937) remarked on the phenomenon of the stereotyping of Native Americans through corporate logos, brand images and hence, advertisements. As Larson (1937, p. 338) apart from the patent medicine packages which featured the "coppery, feather-topped visage of the Indian" butter boxes depict the doe-eyed, buckskinclad Indian ``princess.''   The American Indian, and that which popular culture has determined that he/she represent,  has been exploited within the context of commerce and commercial advertising for close to a century with the purpose being the purveyance of specified messages regarding the company or the brand in question.  Following an overview of the commercialisation of the American Indian image, two case studies of corporate/brand use, of the American Indian image shall be analysed.

2      The Commercialisation of the American Indian

The commercialisation of the Native American image, or figure, is both pervasive and expansive in scope, embracing all of the noble savage and the "mystical environmentalists or uneducated, alcoholic bingo-players confined to reservations'' (Mihesuah, 1996, p. 9).  All one need to conform the validity of the aforementioned assertion is visit their nearest grocery and attempt to quantify the sheer number of products, ice cream, alcohol, cigarettes, canned vegetables, baking powder, honey and butter, to name but a few, on which the image of the American Indian is emblazoned.  Remarking  upon the stated, Aaker and Biel (1993) maintain that the commercialisation of the American Indian image is largely predicated on the assumption that these images will evoke such romanticised conceptualisation of a world gone by that not only will consumers be attracted to the brand in question but they will associate it wit organic wholeness and strength/durability, among others, and the company in question with environmentalism and corporate social responsibility.  Hence, Jeep Cherokee adopts the Washington Redskin logo as a means of communicating durability and the capacity to traverse harsh terrains unscathed, while Land O'Lakes butter and (family) food products display the image of an Indian  princess as a means of communicating both organic wholeness and purity.

There is little doubt that, within the context of product branding and corporate positioning, the use of the American Indian image does not, in the greater majority of cases constitute negative stereotyping but, it is stereotyping nonetheless.  It involves, as Goings (1994) contends in  his study on the use of  ethnic and racial images in advertising, the reinforcement and popularisation of racial and ethnic stereotypes, effectively constraining the ability of most to see, or try to understand members of these groups beyond the meaning inherent in popular commercial images and, importantly, commercialises and objectifies members of these groups. 

These images, many of which date back decades, are the outcome of a "less enlightened time" as Graham (1993, p. 35) insists but hey have effectively served to ensure the persistency of `lack of enlightenment.'  As these images traversed the decades, they ensured that the commercialisation and objectification of the Native American become a part of popular culture.  They have ensured that brand, product and corporate representations of the Native American become the lens through which popular culture sees, interprets and understands the Native American.  As Berkhofer (1979, p. xv) argues in this regard, "the essence of the white image of the Indian has been the definition of American Indians in fact and in fancy as a separate and single other. Whether evaluated as noble or ignoble, whether seen as exotic or downgraded, the Indian as image was always alien to white."  The stereotyping of Native Americans in commerce fortifies the mentioned alienation and, by association,  projects the brands in question as something exotic and rare; as something which, consequently, has to be possessed.

As may have been deduced from the preceding, there is a rationale to the use of American Indian images in commerce, whether brand positioning, product advertising or corporate imaging.  As media and communication theorists have agued, media message receivers, or consumers, bring their own set of beliefs to every ad, image or implied association they come across.  Accordingly, as Williamson (1978, p. 12) writes, commercial advertisements and corporate entities "take into account not only the inherent qualities and attributes of the products they are trying to sell, but also the way in which they can make those properties mean something to us."   This means that the commercialisation of the Native American image and the exploitation of related stereotypes for the explicit purpose of projecting a specified corporate image, positioning a brand or popularising a product is, apart from the cultural ethics, or lack thereof, of the situation, premised on the fact that these images will recall stereotypes and meanings which receivers/consumers will then relate to the product in question, inciting the purchase decision.  There is, in other words, a theoretical justification for the commercialisation of the American Indian, if not an ethical or moral one.

3      The Marketing of the American Indian

Scholars have traced the marketing of the American Indian, or the use of Native American stereotypes in commerce,  to Hollywood and more specifically, to such films as would portrayed the movement of the American Indian from savage to civilised man.  Specifically referring to J.F. Cooper's Deerslayer, Larson (1937, p. 338) outlines the manner in which Hollywood images translated into marketing tools, or the use of American Indian stereotypes in commerce:

No sooner had James Fenimore Cooper romanticized the Indian in the American imagination in his novels than patent-medicine manufacturers, quick to sense and take advantage of this new enthusiasm, used the red man as symbol and token for a great variety of ware. How the heart of the purchaser- filled, like as not, with the heroic exploits of Cooper's Indians - must have warmed as he gazed at the effigy, symbolic of ``Nature's Own Remedy.'' (p. 338)

As projected and popularised by Hollywood, the female Indian, the savage she-creature, becomes the innocent Indian princess who  "renounces her own family, marries someone from the dominate culture and assimilates into it" (Green,1993, p. 327).  The Indian female, and to a lesser degree, the male, is presented as childlike in his/her innocence.  Indeed, Green's (1993) study of American Indian imagery in advertisements contends that they are founded on stereotypes which draw directly from the mentioned Hollywood images.  Hence, within the context of use in commerce, the American Indian image as the innocent child of nature, the ecologically responsible and concerned individual, the redeemable savage, the lazy and parasitical being or the animalistic quasi-human being, predominates.  The image and, hence stereotype, ultimately selected for association with a product is determined by both brand positioning and the nature of the brand in question.  Stereotypes have, thus, translated into product images effectively resulting, not only in the use of the American Indian in commerce but in the commercialisation and objectification of the Native American.

3.1    Land O'Lakes

While the honour of being the first to exploit the American Indian image for commercial purposes and for the specified objective of marketing a product and positioning a brand goes to Red Man Tobacco in 1904, the honour of being the most successful at doing so incontrovertibly belongs to Land O'Lakes.  The use of the American Indian stereotype/image, and the extent to which it contributed to the positioning of the company, let alone its various products, can only be fully understood within the context of the company's overall identity and the nature of the sector within which it is located.

Land O'Lakes, originally known as the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association, may be described, as does Morgan (1986) as the central agent for a group of family-owned organic farms which maintained both their produce and products to be distinct from those of their competitors because of their fundamental aversion to the use of chemicals or artificial additives.  The image of the Indian Princess, as emblazoned on their product packaging, communicated this position, insofar as it evoked images of wholeness, innocence and purity.  The company wanted to position its products as wholly organic, as from the land and untainted and to this extent, and the Indian Princess/Maid image quite effectively did so as it served the stereotype of the ecologically-minded Indian, the Indian who lives by, through and with the land, and the untainted, un-polluted and uncorrupted Indian were all transposed to the company and its products (Burnham, 1992).  In other words, the qualities which are stereotypically associated with the Indian Princess, the pure and uncorrupted maiden is, thus, transferred to the company and its products.

In commentary upon Land O'Lakes' usage of American Indian images for commercial purposes, including all of branding and positioning,  the associations made are positive and the stereotypes brought to the fore all, without exception, emphasise the more positive of the Anglo-Saxon perceptions and conceptualisations of the American Indian.  The fact remains, however, that the company's image and its product branding and positioning are fundamentally founded, not simply upon the propagation of stereotypes but on the commercialisation and objectification of the Native American.

3.2    Crazy Horse Malt Liquor

While, as noted in the preceding, companies such as Land O'Lakes exploit the more positive of the American Indian popular stereotypes for commercial purposes, others highlight the more negative, and infinitely more harmful of them.  Crazy Horse Malt Liquor definitely falls within this category.  Produced by the Hellman Brewing Company, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, a 40-ounce drink, immediately recalls images of the drunkard, alcoholic Indian and, in so doing, seeks to emphasise the brand's potency and suggest that if it can satisfy an alcohol-obsessed Indian, it can definitely meet the expectations of the average Anglo-Saxon.

The logo used is not simply that of an Indian chief in full headdress but it is the image of a real Indian tribal chief, Crazy Horse of the South Dakota Sioux (Blalock, 1992).  Within the context of American history, legend and myth, Chief Crazy horse figures strongly, and erroneously, as the quintessential bloodthirsty Indian who was determined to stop, by any and all means, the progression of the White Man West .  Indeed, a revered forefather of the South Dakota Sioux, Chief Crazy Horse comes across in American literature, history, myth and film as the emblematic representation of the fearless, warrior Indian.  Accordingly, or at least as Blalock (1992) contends, the logo/image immediately evokes images of unmitigated and savage masculinity; a masculinity which is drunk on its own powers and capabilities.  It evokes images of men who drink without inhibition but who can hold their liquor and, indeed, consequent to drinking, forgo the trappings of so called `civilised' behaviour and realise all that they can be. 

The above stated imaging is incontrovertibly negative, not only because it recalls the stereotype of the drunkard Indian to mind but because it effectively solidifies stereotypes of  Native Americans as a savage, bloodthirsty and animalistic race of people.  The Native Indian, in other words, is not simply exploited for commercial purposes but that exploitation is fundamentally founded upon the propagation of negative stereotypes and all for the marketing, positioning and branding of an alcoholic malt drink.

4      Conclusion

Indian stereotypes are consistently employed in commerce and indeed, have become so commonplace and have been with us for so long that many of us fail to notice them anymore or realise their implications.  Whether employed for the purpose of the evocation of positive or negative images, the fact is that they represent the unadulterated exploitation of a race for commercial purposes, bringing to the fore the stereotypes associated with that race in order to sell, position, or brand a product or a company.  In so doing, Native Americans are commercialised and objectified but, more importantly, are stereotyped and re-stereotyped.  It is, thus, that despite the so-called racial understanding and awareness which supposedly prevails today and in spite of the climate of political correctness which theoretically predominates, that American Indian stereotypes are passed down across the years.


5      Bibliography

Aaker, D., & A. L. Biel. (1993). Advertising's role in building strong  brands. Matwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Berkhofer, R., Jr. (1979).The white man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the present. New York: Vintage Books.

Blalock, C. (1992). Crazy Horse controversy riles Congress: Controversies over Crazy Horse Malt Liquor and Black Death vodka. Beverage Industry, 83(9),173.

Burnham, P. (1992, 27May). Indians can't shake label as guides to good buys. The Washington Times, p. E1.

Goings, K.W. (1994). Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black collectibles and American stereotyping. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Graham, R. (1993, 6 January). Symbol or stereotype: One consumer's tradition is another's racial slur. The Boston Globe, p. 35.

Green, M. K. (1993). Images of American Indians in advertising: Some moral issues. Journal of Business Ethics, 12,3237330.

Larson, C. (1937). Patent-medicine advertising and the early American press. Journalism Quarterly, 14(4), 3337339.

Mihesuah, D. A. (1996). American Indians: Stereotypes and realities. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press.

Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding advertisements: Ideology and meaning in advertising. New York: Marion Boyars.

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