It was only a matter of time before cancel culture came for Trader Joe’s. The thing is, they weren’t very interested in listening.
On July 20, the Los Angeles Times reported that the supermarket chain was “in the process of eliminating labels that use ethnic-sounding names intended to be humorous.”
“The offending products bear such labels as Trader Ming’s for foods and condiments related to Chinese cuisine, Trader José’s for Mexican-style products and Trader Giotto’s for Italian-themed items,” Howard Blume reported.
This was prompted, Blume said, because of a petition on Change.org. The petition was started by 17-year-old Briones Bedell, who said she was offended by these labels — as was her family, apparently, who no longer shopped at the store.
“The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures — it presents ‘Joe’ as the default ‘normal’ and the other characters falling outside of it — they are ‘Arabian Joe,’ ‘Trader José,’ and ‘Trader Joe San,’” the petition reads.
Was this going to make a difference? Bedell herself noted the issue probably wasn’t as high up on the left’s to-do list as, say, police brutality, but said she thought it was a good time to open up a dialogue about “microaggressions.”
It seemed like the brand had caved, issuing a statement through a company spokeswoman indicating that future products would only bear Trader Joe’s branding.
“While this approach to product naming may have been rooted in a lighthearted attempt at inclusiveness, we recognize that it may now have the opposite effect — one that is contrary to the welcoming, rewarding customer experience we strive to create every day,” Kenya Friend-Daniel said.
A few days later, however, the chain made it clear that Bedell’s victory over microaggressions was to be short-lived.
In a July 24 news release, Trader Joe’s said it disagreed with Bedell’s characterization of how it labeled its products and said the names that were being changed were ones that weren’t selling well with customers.
“A few weeks ago, an online petition was launched calling on us to ‘remove racist packaging from [our] products,'” the news release said. “Following were inaccurate reports that the petition prompted us to take action. We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions.”
“Decades ago, our Buying Team started using product names, like Trader Giotto’s, Trader José’s, Trader Ming’s, etc. We thought then — and still do — that this naming of products could be fun and show appreciation for other cultures,” read the statement from the chain, which was started in California in 1967.
“For example, we named our Mexican beer ‘Trader José Premium’ and a couple guacamole products are called ‘Avocado’s Number’ in a kitschy reference to a mathematical theory. These products have been really popular with our customers, including some budding mathematicians.”
In terms of products changing names: “A couple years ago we asked our Buying Team to review all our products to see if we needed to update any older packages, and also see if the associated brands developed years ago needed to be refreshed. We found that some of the older names or products just weren’t connecting or selling very well; so, they were discontinued. It’s kind of what we do.”
What they don’t do, however, is get rid of popular products because of Change.org petitions that get a bit of media traction.
“Recently we have heard from many customers reaffirming that these name variations are largely viewed in exactly the way they were intended — as an attempt to have fun with our product marketing,” the news release said. “We continue our ongoing evaluation, and those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.
“Trader Joe’s has been a unique, fun and neighborly place to shop for over 50 years. We look forward to taking care of our wonderful customers for many future decades.”
The news was taken well on Twitter:
Awesome job Trader Joe’s!
— Bad Company (@JuniesThread) July 30, 2020
Thanks TJ’s for not backing down!
— Pat Wall (@walls9255) July 30, 2020
— The Covid Collection (@covidcollection) July 31, 2020
First Goya. Now this. Maybe the tide is turning.
— Mary Owen (@maryowen29) July 30, 2020
Well, maybe not all of Twitter:
— Briones Bedell (@BrionesBedell) July 29, 2020
The petition, of course, was puffed up by media coverage more so than by critical mass. When the Los Angeles Times wrote about Bedell’s Change.org petition, it had attracted “more than 2,000 signatures.” The paper noted another Trader Joe’s-centric petition — one asking the chain to open a location in Beaumont, Texas — had accumulated over 2,800 signatures.
Granted, the Beaumont petition had a bit more of a head start, having been started over four years ago, but neither project particularly oozes critical mass — even though a raft of media coverage has swelled the number of signatures of Bedell’s petition to over 5,000 as of Friday afternoon.
Is this a sign of the tide turning against cancel culture being weaponized against corporations? One hopes. After all, Trader Joe’s realized, not unwisely, that almost no one thought their products were racist before and very few thought they were racist now, even though a few thousand people signed a petition and its progenitor got some media coverage out of it.
That said, one wonders if the company realizes just how tenacious humorless scolds can be, particularly when the cultural winds are at their back.
Only time, alas, will tell if we’ll still be able to buy a six-pack of Trader José Premium in five years.
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