Trader Joe’s Changing ‘Offensive’ Product Names, Caves to Teen’s Petition with Fewer than 4,000 Signatures

Trader Joe's
Phillip Pessar/Flickr

A high school student’s petition posted on the change.org website claims that Trader Joe’s ethnic food labels and its founder are racist, and the store announced it will be rebranding its products.

“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,” Briones Bedell, 17, wrote on her petition, which has gained more than 3,600 signatures.

“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,” company spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said in a Los Angeles Times report.

Bedell in her petition used information from the Trader Joe’s website to make her racism claim, which includes an explanation on how founder Joe Coulombe got the idea for his store:

The store had a nautical theme and it was run by people who were described as “traders on the high seas.” At the time, Joe had been reading a book called “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and he’d been to the Disneyland Jungle Trip ride, and it all just…coalesced. To this day, Trader Joe’s Crew Members consider themselves “traders on the culinary seas” and are known for their bright, tropical-patterned shirts…

Bedell tore into the book and the Disney ride:

The book White Shadows in the South Seas was also made into a silent film. This work demonstrates the horrific legacy of trading companies as they exploited and enslaved the South Pacific in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these regions are still at a disadvantage today because of how traders ravaged their peoples, their societies, and their natural resources. Even though the story calls out the abuses of trading companies, (although it perpetuates other racist tropes such as that of the “noble savage” and “white god” narratives common during this period), “Trader” is still part of the grocery chain’s name. It leaves the question: What in particular about this book inspired the company?

Likewise, the Disneyland Jungle Cruise Ride has received criticism of misappropriating Indigenous culture and perpetuating stereotypes of native people as primitive and savage. The ride features animatronic people only identified as “headhunters” and “natives” dressed in some sort (of which culture it is unclear) of traditional dress, performing a dance, and playing music – and threatening violence toward visitors. It has been criticized as exoticism at its worst due to its exhibition of humans as an attraction that otherwise focuses on animals. Given the extensive history of “human zoos” in the United States, this attraction is unacceptable. In addition, these animatronic people only seem to serve as the punchline of jokes as part of the ride’s experience. This particular display of exoticism is especially confusing in the context of Trader Joe’s because it again leaves the question: What in particular about this theme park ride inspired the company?

The Times reported on the petition and its claims about the real Joe behind Trader Joe’s, who sold his business in 1979 to the German supermarket chain Aldi:

When Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe died earlier this year, he was hailed as a marketing whiz, a retail visionary. He had opened a small, nautical-themed market in South Pasadena in 1967 and watched it grow into an empire of nearly 500 stores nationwide.

But today that empire, known for its trading-post motif and international product lines, has come under attack for its branding of ethnic foods. The names Trader Ming’s, Arabian Joe’s, Trader Jose’s, Trader Giotto’s and Trader Joe San appear on items such as habañero and lime salsa, gyoza dipping sauce and artichoke antipasto.

Trader Joe’s had famously thrived on the presumption that all’s fair in the name of free enterprise and commerce, and consumers responded, drawn to its quirky themes and budget pricing.

The Times interviewed an academic about the newfound power of consumers.

“Long gone are the days when the communication between brands and consumers was one way,” Maria Rodas, a professor of marketing at USC, said. “Consumers have more power than ever, given the huge amount of information at their fingertips, how connected they all are and the easy access to social media platforms that help broadcast their messages.”

“Brands are symbols, and some of them are even cultural symbols,” Rodas said. “Years ago, people would buy a product mainly for its functional benefits, but now people expect more of brands and hold them to higher standards.”

Meanwhile, another petition posted on the change.org website — in both Spanish and English — wants Trader Joe’s to keep its Trader Jose label for its beer.

Carlos Allende started a petition on change.org:

“Trader José” is not an insult. I see it as a loving pun, one that recognizes the difference between cultures, that Spanish is spoken in Mexico and English in the United States, but that also acknowledges that no matter where we come from, we are all the same: whether you are Mexican or American, French Chinese, Russian or African, whether your name is José, Joseph, Giuseppe or Джозеф, we all like good food and we all love tacos.

We Mexicans love when non-native speakers speak to us in Spanish. It makes us laugh when they speak it badly, and no, we have no qualms on correcting them. What makes us angry is when we are not asked for our opinion. “Trader Pepe,” for example, would be more appropriate than “Trader José.” If you want to respect our culture, hire advertisers and copywriters who speak Spanish. Conduct market surveys that involve actual Spanish speakers.

A teenager who has not finished high school and probably does not speak any other language than English has decided that “Trader José” is racist. I have two master’s degrees, a Ph.D. in psychology, two published books, another to come, I have lived in five different countries, traveled half the world, and speak well five languages: Spanish, English, French, Italian, a little bit of Dutch, and also some Galician. I speak many languages because I have learned to love and respect other cultures and made part of my life the things I love from them. Most importantly, I am Mexican. I don’t think “Trader José” is racist. And believe me, I know what it is to suffer racism. If Trader Joe’s wants to be more inclusive, start by hiring marketing people who speak native Spanish.

Allende’s petition has gained 148 signatures since it was posted 24 hours ago. Bedell’s petition was posted two weeks ago.

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