As the World ChurnsRoundup
tags: Native Americans, advertising, Commercial culture
Peter Manseau (@plmanseau) is the author of nine books and the curator of religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
WHEN LAND O’LAKES ANNOUNCED three months ago that it was redesigning the packaging on its butter boxes, it barely made the back-page news. But then media outlets across the country began to highlight a part of the redesign the farmer-owned dairy co-op left unmentioned in its original announcement: the “butter maiden” was on her way out. After serving the brand for nearly a century, the iconic image of a Native American woman kneeling before a pastoral vista would soon be replaced by the words “Farmer-Owned”—and, on some products, “photos of real Land O’Lakes farmers and co-op members.”
“Mia,” as Land O’Lakes calls the butter maiden, was apparently more beloved than the brand anticipated. Cascades of hand-wringing stories have greeted the change, perhaps none more overwrought than the Wall Street Journal’s solemnly titled editorial “Mia Land O’Lakes, 1928-2020,” which bemoaned that “in America in 2020, a box of butter is never just a box of butter,” and then wondered if the Lucky Charms leprechaun might be next.
On social media, outrage over the butter maiden’s removal grew in April, and was then quickly repackaged as look-at-these-rubes content by BuzzFeed (“Land O’Lakes Took The ‘Butter Maiden’ Off Their Packaging And Now People Are Having Meltdowns Over It”) and TMZ (“New Change Sparks Outrage ‘KISS THIS BUTTER BUYER’S ASS!!!’”).
Those complaining loudest leaped to the conclusion that the company was “virtue signaling,” or bowing to widespread disapproval of stereotypical portrayals of indigenous people. Land O’Lakes may have had internal discussions about such matters, but its public rationale is that promoting awareness of the company as a farmer-owned cooperative is its biggest selling point. Still, consumers can be sentimental and nostalgic—and some seemed to believe that changing the butter packaging erases the past. They’ve always liked the butter maiden, so why take her away?
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