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Hal Silverman was serving as the Creative Director of the now-defunct Campbell Mithun advertising agency when, in 1964, a particularly exciting assignment came in from Pillsbury. They wanted to create a drink mix to rival that of Kool-Aid, which Kraft had produced to rapturous success since 1927. What resulted was the genesis of Funny Face in early 1965, pre-sweetened drink powders that came in small pouches.
Silverman conceived of specific characters for each of the drink's flavors, meant, initially, to serve as something of a tribute to his four-year-old daughter whom he called "Freckle Face." Goofy Grape was the leader of the gang, and he'd be accompanied by Freckle Face Strawberry, Loud Mouth Lime, Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry, along with Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange. Injun Orange was a rotund orange with two smears of war paint on each cheek and topped with a feather headdress. Chinese Cherry was a fleshy drupe with slanted eyes, a Hop Sing pigtail, and buck teeth, his arrival in the commercial accompanied by the strum of a gong.
Time—rightly—hasn't been kind to these flavors. Today, they’ve accrued quite a deserved reputation for being outwardly racist caricatures. (A few pockets of the internet contend that Pillsbury kowtowed to “PC culture,” before the words 'PC culture' meant anything at all in our cultural vernacular.) Yet, in most corners, they’re cited as relics of America's ugly advertising past, wherein someone’s personhood was greater America’s punchline.
It didn't take very long for Pillsbury to change the characters. Mere months after releasing the Funny Face flavors, Pillsbury was inundated with a flurry of complaints. It began with spores of fury from Chinese grocers in Sacramento, California, who objected to the drink mixes being sold in their stores. In July of 1965, Pillsbury recognized error and amended accordingly, transforming the two into Choo Choo Cherry, an pleasant train engineer, and the daft, gleeful Jolly Olly Orange. “We admit guilt all over the lot,” the unnamed Pillsbury spokesman told The New York Times in February of 1966. “It was in poor taste. We quickly saw our fault.”
Yet even after this shift, a number of the old packages were still in rotation. Early in 1966, the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit advocacy group, penned a strongly worded missive to Pillsbury on behalf of both Native Americans and Chinese-Americans, contending that Funny Face’s caricatures “hold up to ridicule and derision some 55,000 American Indian citizens and 700,000 American citizens of Oriental descent [sic] face.”
The group hadn't yet realized Pillsbury had already course-corrected. This wasn't the first time AAIA had successfully lobbied to get rid of a tasteless food mascot; earlier that decade, it'd persuaded Clavert Distillers Company to reverse the mascot-making of an Indian brave to sell whiskey. Their view of Pillsbury's intent was charitable, professing they doubted Pillsbury was malicious in intent. Yet wanted to reassert the wider repercussions of such casually incendiary representation. “American Indians are the most poverty-stricken group in the United States," they wrote. "Portrayals such as those used on your product impede their efforts to make a better life for themselves and give them little reason to believe that they will be treated by their non-Indian fellow citizens with respect.”
The history of Funny Face itself after the ban of these two characters is quite tumultuous, too: The artificial sweetener that formed the backbone of the drink—cyclamate—had been banned by the FDA in 1968, resulting in the removal of Funny Face from store shelves until Pillsbury could ably reformulate. The next year, Pillsbury had retooled accordingly, and Funny Face returned with sugar and a battalion of new flavors. These weren't enough to keep the product afloat, particularly against Kool Aid's dominance; it'd petered out by the mid-1980s after attempting a valiant last gasp in the form of chocolate flavored moo-juice.
It’s been 50 some years since Silverman created these characters. I reached out to Silverman, the man who conceived of these two characters now cast in amber for their offensiveness; I wanted to know how he felt about what happened 50 years ago, what he remembered of these protests, and how he looks back on the creation of these characters. As of writing, Silverman hasn’t responded, and I’ll update if he does so. The closest thing he’s offered thus far to an apology—or explanation—is in the comments section of an old article on Retroland from three years ago. “At the time, I was naive enough not to realize that the names Chinese Cherry and Injun Orange could be hurtful to Chinese and Native Americans,” he wrote. “My sincere apologies, at this late date, to anyone I offended.”
Remember Funny Face? Let us know in the comments.