Essay

Confected outrage

What’s in a snack name?

IN 2016, I attended a children’s literature conference in Wrocław, Poland, to deliver a paper to an international audience. On the first day, I heard the voices of two other Australians – our accent, to my ears, coming through flat and obvious from the auditorium seats. My paper was about lollies in children’s fiction, so of course I had brought with me bags of lollies to share with my audience and, hopefully, make my talk more appealing. Having spent four years writing about lollies, I figured my confectionery choices needed to be popular and tasty and say something about my central thesis. I’d taken ages in a Brisbane supermarket aisle, finally settling on bags of Allen’s Pineapples, Allen’s Strawberries & Creams and Allen’s Chicos: small, brown, chocolate-flavoured jubes that are shaped like babies. I was very nervous about my presentation, but I had no idea that it was this mundane act of choosing confectionery I should have worried about the most.

Picture a typical, modern tertiary classroom with a few rows of chairs facing a screen and whiteboard, and high windows looking out on to a university square. Two dozen researchers had chosen my session, called ‘Sweet objects of play: how confectionery is more than food in children’s literature’. In the case of fiction for children, I argued, the significance of lollies goes beyond food. The endurance and primacy of lollies in children’s fiction articulate a self-creation: the sweets affect the child character beyond the physical. I presented my paper and enjoyed the satisfaction that comes when your niche ideas about an unusual topic find an audience, even for twenty minutes.

During question time at the end, as I was readying to pass out my packets of treats, one of the other Australians in the room – a white Australian, like me – raised their hand. They wanted the audience to know that they recognised the inappropriateness of Chicos. They wanted to acknowledge its strangeness as a popular product eaten, largely without question, by adults and children across Australia. They probably wanted to distance themselves from me.

I shook the bag of lollies nervously. ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘But please, help yourself.’

 

THE TERM ‘LOLLY’, used exclusively for sugared confectionery, is uniquely antipodean. You will find sugared confections called, specifically, lollies in Australia and New Zealand but rarely anywhere else. Laura Mason, a confectionery historian, says lolly probably comes from ‘an old word for tongue’. The word first appeared in print in an 1854 novel by Scottish-born Australian author Catherine Helen Spence. In the second volume of Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, naughty girl Fanny nibbles on biscuits, wheedles her mother out of ‘fourpenny’ and then runs away ‘to the nearest lolly shop, and all her brothers and sisters followed her’. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Spence’s first use of the word, although the OED records the etymology of lolly as a truncation of ‘lollipop’.

Lollies may be wrapped or unwrapped, sold individually, in a mixed bag or in a packet of dozens of their own variety. They defy a single classification, but occupy an intangible taxonomy of shifting cultural meanings that relate to price, places of purchase, points in the day and year in which they’re consumed – even the time it takes to eat one. Even the smallest child can improvise on how to handle a lolly, consuming it secretly and messily, yielding to rituals of eating they’ve designed all by themselves. Children can fit them in pockets and under tongues during class. Lollies elicit rituals of their own and become repositories for memories. They conjure fun and naughtiness, and often set children, just like Spence’s Fanny, at odds with adults. Cultural historian Toni Risson says ‘consumers make emotional bonds with childhood lollies, and many lollies are as popular now as they were eighty years ago. There is something comforting about things that stay the same in a world of rapid and unprecedented change.’

Lollies are interesting to me precisely because they are regarded as small, unimportant, cheap, tacky. Yet the long list of historians and cultural researchers who examine confectionery around the world is testament to people’s interest in them. Lollies have lasted. They are bad for us. They are silly. When eaten in public, or served at a children’s party, they signify something about the parents who have bought them and about which kids are allowed to take a handful.

But lollies still, I think, get overlooked.

And for a long time, well before that Aussie researcher made a bit of an example of me in that classroom, I’ve been fascinated not just by their function in children’s literature but by their position in culture. What that other academic was pointing out about Chicos was that the eating of a brown baby jube is problematic, and its name is racist. And they were correct – I’d written about this in my thesis, and I was wrong not to have noted it in my presentation. But I love those lollies. My cousin and I used to eat them sandwiched between two Allen’s Freckles.

Many of us can name our favourite childhood lollies. But what if a lolly’s name, or the name of another popular food item, is out of date? What if it’s racist, harmful or wrong? What happens when the name of a lolly doesn’t work anymore?

 

NESTLÉ IS THE largest food company in the world, although it prefers to call itself ‘the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company’. It has operations in more than 95 per cent of all countries. In 1987 Nestlé purchased Allen’s, and continues to retain the recognisable Allen’s branding on its packaging for popular products such as Snakes Alive, Frogs Alive, Pineapples, Strawberries & Cream, Chicos and Red Skins (a dark pink raspberry-flavoured chewy lolly). And although these products endure as children’s party staples, time has caught up with Chicos and Red Skins. In the past few years, Nestlé Australia has taken notice of what others have long been saying: that these lollies’ names were unnecessarily harmful and ought to change.

During the 1990s, individual red wrappers of Red Skins featured black-and-white designs that evoked the shape of flags and teepees. Bags of them featured representations of American Indian men with painted faces and feathered headdresses. A New Zealand television advertisement depicted a comedian dressed in a headdress and speaking in a fake ‘Indian’ accent to a drumbeat. In 1996 a complaint was lodged against the ad, which the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority Complaints Board upheld on the grounds that the lolly’s name and marketing were offensive.

A 2001 statement from the US Commission on Civil Rights on the use of American Indian images and nicknames as sports symbols encouraged non-native schools to reject iconography such as ‘mascots and their performances, logos or names [because they] are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians and others who are offended by such stereotyping…The use of [such] imagery and traditions, no matter how popular, should end when they are offensive.’ 

Thinking we know a food product in its entirety – consumers love that. Naming an object – well, we love to do that too. And so do the heads of Allen’s and Nestlé. Over time, a grinning, goofy little car replaced the American Indian man on bags of Red Skins. Later still, the black-and-white was gone and the name Red Skins appeared twisted like a banner on wrappers that were coloured red and purple, perhaps in a further attempt to separate the lolly from its original branding concept.

In June 2020, Nestlé announced that Chicos would be renamed Cheekies and Red Skins would become Red Rippers. In a statement Nestlé said: ‘This decision acknowledges the need to ensure that nothing we do marginalises our friends, neighbours and colleagues… These names have overtones which are out of step with Nestlé’s values, which are rooted in respect.’ (It’s worth noting that one of these names continued to be controversial for a short time. Red Ripper didn’t last long – it turned out to be the moniker of a serial killer from the Soviet Union. Nestlé received further backlash before settling on Red Ripperz.)

Notable people weighed in: Pauline Hanson posted on her Facebook page that Nestlé’s decision was ‘pathetic’ and part of the ‘cancel culture epidemic…caving into the hysterical left’s demands’. Why does a federal senator from Queensland care about a raspberry lolly that gets stuck in your teeth? The answer, most likely, is that Hanson does not care at all about Red Skins but she does care about the changing world that wants to rename them. Her post helped foment her followers’ irritation about things out of their control, big and small. Hanson can point to a trifling object associated with childhood and wonder aloud how on Earth the supposedly fixed nature of it (the product likely a constant in supermarkets that Hanson visits) has been upended. She can remind people on her social media pages that they too used to eat these treats.

Risson points to nostalgia as a driving force behind this frustration: ‘To tamper with the name (or the recipe) of a childhood product seems like attacking or invalidating a childhood, like wrecking a pleasant memory.’ Perhaps other consumers marvel that they could have overlooked such a word on a children’s food label. The offence, Risson says, is double: ‘Being found guilty, in addition to having your childhood attacked.’

There is so much more to a lolly than simply eating it.

 

SUCH REAL (AND confected) outrage precludes any real examination of Nestlé as a credibly accused perpetrator of human rights abuses and environmental mismanagement, or of its well-documented pattern of disregard for labour laws and infant safety. Multinationals – and here Nestlé is a fine example – do far worse across the globe than drag their feet in removing a racist slur from a packet of lollies. What is it about a shift in names that provokes such fury from people, particularly from adults who probably don’t even buy the things?

Political theorist Jane Bennett asks what would happen if we ‘attended more carefully’ to the ‘trajectories and powers’ of materialities. When a company renames a product, the product continues to exist, but on a new trajectory and in a new form. The company makes or loses money on the gamble. It retains existing customers and attracts new buyers, or perhaps it also loses fans in the process. In Australia, the lolly cigarette is a perfect example of this new trajectory – of what critic Steven Connor calls the ‘changeable life’ of things.

Demanding not only a new name, but new ingredients and appearance too, the candy cigarette is a clear illustration of sociologist Allison James’ definition of tacky ‘ket’ made for children alone. In Australia, the most well-known candy cigarettes were Fags, made by family owned Fyna Foods in Melbourne. Fags were extrusion-paste lollies about the length and width of half a pencil – approximately the size of a real cigarette. They were coloured white with a red ‘lit’ tip and laid in a row in a little cardboard box, which was blue with a girl and boy running, nursery-rhyme style, up a yellow path. I remember buying packets from Kelly’s Store in Toowoomba. I would slide out a single lolly, put it between my fingers and pretend to smoke before I bit into it, chewed and swallowed. 

Multiple processes are at play here. Sociologist Deborah Lupton argues that food ‘forever threatens contamination and bodily impurity’. Both sugar and tobacco threaten contamination. The child who holds a candy cigarette between her fingers, first pretending to smoke and then beginning to chew, is engaged in what anthropologist Sidney Mintz calls ‘divided (simultaneous) consumption’. The child possesses the sweet lolly to eat while also presenting an image of herself as rebellious, or at least adult, to the world. According to Mintz, this doubling of pleasure promises to ‘maximiz[e] enjoyment’. At least for some decades, the appeal of the candy cigarette – a lolly to eat plus a cool-looking ‘cigarette’ to hold – was multiplied.

By the mid-1990s, it was decidedly not a good look for children to appear to smoke. Consumers recognised concerns about future cigarette addiction. One US study put candy cigarette-eating children like poor old me at higher risk of the real thing later in life, but these results were never replicated. And around the same time that we were scratching our heads about how to discourage kids from becoming smokers, we were also starting to understand that the term ‘fags’ was homophobic and problematic. It would not suit a product meant for children. Fyna Foods renamed their lollies Fads Fun Sticks, changed them from white to pale yellow and removed the red ‘lit’ tip. The continued success of this lolly hinged on this overhauling of its appearance and name. 

Risson notes that, yet again, consumers opposed the move, which ‘may have come from those who were children in the ’70s and ’80s, when lolly Fags were hugely popular’. Risson also observes that in the’90s ‘whether the manufacturer called them Fag or Fads, and whether they had a red end or not, children still “smoked” them’. But the ’90s child was also bombarded with anti-tobacco campaigns at school and on the television screen – smoking may have been losing its appeal anyway. Rebranding to Fads Fun Sticks might not have prevented a child growing up to be a smoker, or a kid in the playground calling another kid the F-word. But sometimes brands manage to catch up, change to reflect a society’s evolving social mores and perhaps prevent further years of damage.

 

BORN IN PHILADELPHIA in 1871, Edward William Coon struck out on his own, away from the family business, by renting a cheese factory in New York. To produce the company’s original cheeses and differentiate itself from competitors, Coon filed a patent in 1926 for a new cheese-ripening process. In Australia, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company (later Kraft Foods) began selling Red Coon cheese from 1931 and, according to Kraft company lore, the brand was named after Edward Coon. Later it was sold to Dairy Farmers, which was then taken over by National Foods. Canadian dairy giant Saputo bought the brand in 2015 when the cheese named Coon was still for sale on Australian supermarket shelves. Stephen Hagan, an Aboriginal academic and activist, disputes that the cheese was named for Edward Coon at all – he cites evidence that Kraft-Walker was not in the habit of naming its brands after people or even that it used his patented method. Rather, he argues, it chose the name Coon with full knowledge that the word was, at the time, a common pejorative for Black Americans and Aboriginal people. 

In 1999 Hagan publicly flagged the product as a slur against First Nations people in Australia, a campaign he continued in the media. Hagan draws a link between his awareness of Coon cheese and his campaign to remove a racist word from a sports stadium in Toowoomba in 1999, which he took to the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal of Queensland and over which he received death threats. (The name was only ‘removed’ when Toowoomba Sports Ground demolished the stand in 2008.)

Despite the fact that Coon was owned by an American company, then a Japanese one and then a Canadian one, many Australians resisted calls to alter their beloved Aussie cheese. Hagan believes this passion in Australia reflects a contempt for change and a desire to hold on to ‘whatever values people inherit from their forebears, which are to be cherished, cultivated with care and protected at all costs. People who wish to challenge the status quo are to be dealt with swiftly and decisively to send a clear message to other dissenters who wish to go down that path.’

It took Saputo till 2020 to announce they would retire the name with effect from mid-2021. The product is now sold with almost identical packaging but is called Cheer. Hagan considers those final six years of lobbying between 2015 and 2021 as somewhat ‘sped up’. Customer dissatisfaction played a part, he agrees, as well as the projected consumer backlash about the racist term: ‘The Black Lives Matter movement was changing the way the race issue was being played out globally, especially the casual acceptance of racism. It made mainstream society (non-Black) look at themselves in the mirror and what they saw looking back at themselves, on reflection, was no longer palatable. It was raw, ugly and abhorrent.’

Although not a widespread outcry, pockets of high-profile conservative commentators (including Hanson) expressed their outrage about the newly named cheese. On 5 August 2020, Sky News commentator Rowan Dean tweeted a message to his followers: ‘In the shopping bag possibly for the last time – when they change the name I’ll be swapping to any other brand.’ Accompanying Dean’s statement was a photo of a 250-gram block of Coon cheese alongside tomatoes and bread, all artfully arranged for social media. 

 

IF THIS SEEMS like a long bow to draw – racial upheaval during the US summer of 2020 and a dairy conglomerate finally agreeing to amend packaging that has existed for more than eighty years – I understand. But eating has never been simple. Buying food has never been simple. 

Consider just some of the foodstuffs whose names and logos have been changed in the immediate wake of, among other race-related incidents, George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Eskimo Pie, sold in Australia by Peters Ice Cream and co-owned by Nestlé, became Polar Pie, while Mars, the owner of Uncle Ben’s rice, removed racist elements of its visual identity and now sells its goods under the name Ben’s Original. Food and beverage giant PepsiCo renamed its Aunt Jemima brand as Pearl Milling Company and retired the exploitative ‘Mammy’ caricature featured on its packaging.

Like Hagan, other activists had raised issues with naming and logos and had lobbied PepsiCo well before mid-2020, but the BLM movement intensified corporations’ visibility and culpability. It appears that companies can make decisions and promote their own anti-racism policies very quickly when they have a potential PR disaster on their hands. Kelli Morgan, Professor of the Practice, History of Art and Architecture and director of Curatorial Studies at Tufts University, Massachusetts, argues that companies will ‘say the thing they are supposed to say at the right time because it’s profitable’. This, of course, raises the question: what prevents them from taking action in the absence of an immediate crisis? Morgan says that although it’s hard to face, ‘white supremacy is as American as baseball’. George Floyd’s murder certainly didn’t signal the first time mass protests emerged after police brutality, but Morgan points out that this pivotal event occurred during a tumultuous time: within the first six months of COVID-19 and deep into the Trump presidency. Trump’s gross negligence, especially during Covid and in the aftermath of Floyd’s on-camera murder, signalled ‘the first time a lot of white people in modern America had to come face-to-face with the negative effects of white supremacy on white people’.

The enduring power of the white matriarch also plays a part in this process. When considered alongside the swathe of Mammy-shaped biscuit jars, salt and pepper shakers, and kitchen bells it’s clear that supermarket products such as Aunt Jemima pancake mix were largely targeted at female homemakers. Riché Richardson, a professor at Cornell University’s Africana Studies and Research Center, calls the ‘Aunt Jemima trademark one of the most enduring in American advertising history’ but also one that has been ‘challenged by a range of artists and critics over the years’. A brand name can last for decades because of consumer sentimentality and because, Richardson says, corporations ‘have not become inclusive or informed enough to challenge them’. If a company lacks voices of dissent and diversity from people who hold positions of power within, then the status quo won’t change.

The original appeal of a Mammy or a Rastus or Uncle Ben character was linked to women’s purchasing power and domestic space – and, as Morgan argues, ‘to a large degree during slavery, white women were circumscribed very badly, and subsequently enacted their wrath on enslaved Black women as a way to feel like they were in control of their own lives’. Buying into crafted stereotypes about the enslaved people in their homes was thus part of a ‘visual need to understand the Black woman who’s running your kitchen and the Black man who’s running your house’. This was all part of a ‘degradation, an infantilisation, to dismiss how skilled the enslaved people under their control actually were. They were strong farm labourers, they built the furniture, they raised the children. Stereotypes are so ingrained that a white imaginary needs the truth about Black humanity, intelligence and skill to be a lie so it can understand itself as superior.’

Yet none of the media releases issued at the time these corporations announced their changes genuinely articulated concerns about historical and ongoing racism. When the team at Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream in the US declared it would no longer be using the word ‘Eskimo’, long considered offensive, for its Fudge Pie ice-cream bar, its statement began: ‘Our mission at Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream is to bring joy to everyday life with ice-cream.’ Referring to its June 2020 announcement about changing Red Skins and Chicos, Allen’s noted on social media: ‘At Allen’s we are about creating smiles… This decision acknowledges the need to keep creating smiles.’

Similarities in the public relations language employed here (friends, joy, smiles) seem to underscore an expectation that changing a name should be enough for customers to enthusiastically return their purchasing power to the brand. But all of us – the consumer, the farmer, the food scientist, the factory worker, the graphic designer, the publicist, the supermarket manager – know it’s far more complicated. Some brands really do make us smile, yes, but food remains a marker of social identity and a reflection of a group’s tastes over time. However important it might be to bring about these changes, Richardson notes that ‘it is also crucial not to stop with symbols, but to also address broad policy issues that hold the potential to make larger and more lasting transformations in society’. And while logos and names for many products have changed, who can really measure the damage they might have done before that change took place? As Morgan says, the products on supermarket shelves have always been ‘invisible, yet totally visible’.

 

FOOD REVEALS MUCH about us at the same time as we might fear just what it reveals. The products we buy are on show from the moment we place them in our shopping baskets to the moment we dispose of their packaging (I’m writing from England, where I leave my clear-bagged garbage for collection on the footpath outside my flat). And our emotional reactions and attachments to those products operate according to their own strange logic. After my presentation at the conference, a Polish academic came up to say hello; she told me how much her teenage daughter loved Australia and the idea of Australian food. I gave her my remaining lollies and, based on little else, we corresponded over email for years. Those lollies I packed in my suitcase for that conference became much more central to my trip than I expected. But on some level, I knew this – that’s why I took so long to choose which ones to take to share with people.

Other factors guide our food choices, too. Presiding over two small children perched in a Coles trolley in the ’80s and ’90s, my mother shopped for grocery items on sale, scanning the shelves for discount tickets. I do this too, even though my budget for food as a mother with two small children far exceeds what hers would have been, and even though I buy lollies more often than she did. So if we’re lucky enough to choose what we eat, we choose based on price, yes, and taste and perhaps the origins of the ingredients and where a product might have been manufactured. And buying a particular brand, or rejecting it because we suddenly (or over a period of decades) realise that we don’t want to say that name or be seen buying it, says something about us. Brands will have to catch up. Companies talk of joy and smiles and gesture towards anti-racism and respect for marginalised groups, but they take their sweet time about it. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

This work was supported by a Griffith Review Varuna Writers’ Residency, thanks to the Graeme Wood Foundation.

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