Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Yes, We Have No Bananas
(This is the ninth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)
My earliest exposure to the United Fruit Company (UFC) was in the form of an anthropomorphic singing female banana decked out like Brazilian movie musical bombshell Carmen Miranda, warning me melodically not to put bananas in the re-fridge-er-a-tor.
Carmen’s get-up with the fruitbasket hat had been introduced to the world in the Hollywood musical The Gang’s All Here in 1943, three years before I was born.
Later movies and personal appearances, including on TV in the early 1950s, found Carmen’s hats becoming progressively more outlandish!
In 1944, cartoonist Dik Browne (a prolific artist whose most memorable claim to fame is probably his cartoon strip “Hagar the Horrible”) was hired by the United Fruit Company to put a friendly face on their corporation. Obviously riffing off Carmen’s look from the 1943 movie, Browne came up with a bubbly, cheerful cartoon persona for UFC. Thus was born Chiquita Banana.
Chiquita Banana ads (see one on Youtube linked at the end of this blog entry) were played in movie theaters, so I probably first saw one in the early 1950s. The catchy jingle is one of those that stay with you your whole life…like Dinah Shore’s “See the USA in your Chevrolet” from the mid-50s. Chiquita stayed pretty much the same up until 1987, when the UFC decided to de-anthropomorphize her, sort of like Pinocchio at the end of the Disney movie! She became a human instead of a banana, from then on known as Miss Chiquita, rather than Chiquita Banana. Well, she was a cartoon human, at first, drawn by Oscar Grillo, creator of the Pink Panther.
Starting in 1994 a series of young women “lookalikes” have been chosen to “embody” that iconic symbol, most recently Jenny Canales of California. Grillo’s Chiquita shows up in print advertising, the “live” Chiquita shows up for personal appearances to promote UFC’s interests.
Yes, particularly among journalists in South America, the UFC has been known as “El Pulpo”…The Octopus…since the early years of the 20th century. And for much the same reason that the monolithic Standard Oil of the early 1900s was also satirized as The Octopus.
Why an octopus? Because, like Standard Oil in the US in the days of the Robber Barons around the turn of the last century, UFC had its tentacles in every aspect of society, government, infrastructure, and finances of the many countries where it had vast land holdings in the Caribbean, Central America, and tropical South America.
You’ve probably heard of a “Banana Republic.” No, not those upscale clothing shops in malls these days, that started out selling pseudo-safari type clothing to couch potato middle class Americans. The term “banana republic” long predates those shops.
The United Fruit Company (UFCO) owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It also dominated regional transportation networks through its International Railways of Central America and its Great White Fleet of steamships. In addition, UFCO branched out in 1913 by creating the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. UFCO’s policies of acquiring tax breaks and other benefits from host governments led to it building enclave economies in the regions, in which a company’s investment is largely self-contained for its employees and overseas investors and the benefits of the export earnings are not shared with the host country.
One of the company’s primary tactics for maintaining market dominance was to control the distribution of banana lands. UFCO claimed that hurricanes, blight and other natural threats required them to hold extra land or reserve land. In practice, what this meant was that UFCO was able to prevent the government from distributing banana lands to peasants who wanted a share of the banana trade. The fact that the UFCO relied so heavily on manipulation of land use rights in order to maintain their market dominance had a number of long-term consequences for the region. For the company to maintain its unequal land holdings it often required government concessions. And this in turn meant that the company had to be politically involved in the region even though it was an American company. In fact, the heavy-handed involvement of the company in governments which often were or became corrupt created the term “Banana republic” representing a “servile dictatorship”. The term “Banana Republic” was coined by American writer O. Henry. [Wiki: United Fruit Company]
O. Henry (real name: William Sydney Porter) spent 1896-97 in the Central American nation of Honduras, in exile to escape prosecution in the US for bank embezzlement. He finally came back to the US and served a prison sentence. But while in prison, he began his serious writing. And he later turned those Honduran experiences into a series of fictional stories, eventually compiled into a book titled Cabbages and Kings. In these, he describes the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” (modeled after Honduras) as being a “banana republic.”
To bottom-line it…a banana republic is a country with a corrupt government “owned” by foreign business interests. And where wealth—and land ownership—is consolidated among those foreign businesses and a small group of local elites. And where the landless peasants, the vast majority of the population, are thus forced to subsist by employment with those foreign businesses at slave-labor wages.
And as you may have guessed by now, who “owned” most of these banana republics was the United Fruit Company. (The Standard Fruit Co.—now called Dole—also played a role, but in this part of the world, UFC had the lion’s share of the fruit—primarily banana—market.)
Samuel Zemurray [known as Sam the Banana Man], later to become president of United Fruit, was an American banana plantation owner in Honduras.
Unhappy with the US-Honduran agreement governing customs tax at that time, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He contacted a former president of the country, Manuel Bonilla, and enlisted the help of two mercenaries, who brought with them rifles, ammunition and a machine gun, in those days a rare and powerful weapon. They attacked Honduras and overthrew the government in six weeks.
Following the election of Bonilla as president, Zemurray was awarded a large tract of land by the new Honduran Congress, which also waived his obligation to pay taxes for the next 25 years.
Zemurray once famously remarked: “In Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of parliament.” [Source ]
Zemurray eventually built UFC into a powerhouse corporation, one of America’s biggest by 1940.
And if you were head of a big corporation in America in the 1940s and wanted someone to handle your company’s public relations program, who might be your first choice?
Right. Edward L. Bernays, the force behind “Reach for a Lucky instead of a Sweet” and so many other public relations campaigns. And Eddie started in right away on one of his elaborate schemes.
Zemurray was always looking to sell more fruit, especially during the winter, when frosts made shipment and storage more difficult. That was why, in the early 1940s, he hired Bernays as his public relations counsel. [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. Unless otherwise noted, all further quotes below are from this source.]
First prong of the plan… the usual “expert opinion” related to “health.”
Bernays showed him that one way to boost sales was to link bananas to good health. Dr. Sidney Haas, a New York pediatrician, had proved years before that the tropical fruit helped cure celiac disease, a chronic digestive disorder. The public relations man decided to use a celebration of Haas’s fiftieth anniversary as a doctor to get out the word that bananas helped digestion.
He printed 100,000 copies of a thin hardcover book on the topic and mailed them to editors, librarians, dieticians, home economists, pediatricians, and doctors specializing in digestive troubles. And he got United Fruit to sponsor Haas’s research, although there was no mention of its sponsorship in such Haas publications as “The Value of the Banana in the Treatment of Celiac Disease.”
Bernays also linked bananas to national defense, a connection less obtuse than it seems since United Fruit’s “Great White Fleet” was used in both world wars to ferry supplies and troops. A 1942 memo outlined his three-part approach to demonstrating “that the maintenance of the banana import trade is basic to the United States (a) because it maintains the stability of the Central American republics, (b) because it provides an economic basis for taking defense material, vital to the United States, to the Panama Canal, [and] (c) because it is logical that the boats that take the material there should not come back unloaded, but that they should help to further hemispheric solidarity and the Good Neighbor Policy by bringing loads of bananas to this country.”
The strategy, he concluded, “is a political, economic, defense, and practical one.” In Big Think terms, it amounted to couching his client’s private interests behind America’s public interests.
And then there was an attention to target-marketing to niche markets:
On top of that he campaigned to get bananas into hotels, railroad dining cars, airplanes, and steamers; to feed them to professional and college football teams, summer campers, YMCA and YWCA members, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and students of all ages; to promote them among cake, cookie, ice cream, and candy makers; and to secure a place for them in movie studio cafeterias and at top-of-the-line resorts in places like Palm Beach and Sun Valley.
But with his usual grandiose chutzpah, he decided this wasn’t enough. UFC didn’t need to just sell bananas…why not go the whole nine yards and …
… sell an entire region of the hemisphere. So he set up one of his trademark front groups, the Middle America Information Bureau, which churned out brochures and press releases with titles like “How about Tomato Lamburgers?” “Okra Is Decorative as well as Delicious,” and “Middle America in Tomorrow’s America: A Program of Activities for Men’s Civic and Social Organizations.”
The bureau even renamed the region, explaining that “Middle America” was “a rational and timely expansion of the phrase ‘Central America,’ which by long usage includes only the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and the colony of British Honduras.” Middle America would include those countries, along with Mexico and the Caribbean island republics of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
For of course, the interests of United Fruit included Mexico and the Caribbean countries.
And also of course, the “Information Bureau” wasn’t truly a neutral organization. It was an arm of UFC, which Eddie made clear.
But Bernays noted in a memo to bureau writers and researchers that “all material released by this office must be approved by responsible executives of the United Fruit Company,” and that “in view of the widely known constructive activities of the company, mention of United Fruit will enhance the value of the story to editor and readers and should be made.”
The Information Bureau did distribute “fresh” research about “Middle America.” But not done by academic scholars in some university somewhere.
Where did the bureau get its material on the region? From United Fruit, of course. “I wrote articles, one after another. I ground them out, and they were sent to newspapers throughout the country,” recalled Samuel Rovner, who went to work for Bernays right after graduating from the Columbia University School of Journalism in 1943. “I didn’t know much about Latin America. I did some research now and then, but for the most part [the articles were] based on material that came from the United Fruit Company.”
But lurking behind the scenes was an issue that was a thorny problem even for a PR expert like Eddie.
Even as he was trying to teach North America about Middle America, Bernays urged United Fruit to reform its Latin American operations as a way of proving it cared about the countries in which it was making money. He made sure everyone knew that Zemurray had restored an ancient Mayan ball court, and he got a stamp issued to commemorate the ruins. And when he returned from a monthlong company-sponsored trip to Guatemala and Honduras in September 1947, Bernays wrote his fruit company clients a long memo warning them about low worker morale and substandard living conditions. “Good will of all groups towards fruit company is poor,” he said. “Ignorance, conscious and unconscious distortion by politicos in power or seeking power, by fellow traveler[ s] and Communist influences all contribute their part. Guatemala is in a state of transition.… All these situations complicate [the] issue and make the company vulnerable unless certain things happen.
In a move uncharacteristic of Eddie, he actually suggested to UFC leadership a series of honest-to-goodness reforms UFC could institute that would improve its public image.
… as always, Bernays believed most of United’s problems could be resolved through aggressive public relations. As had happened when he tried to get Procter and Gamble to address racism within its ranks, however, even his modest bid for change was too drastic for his client. “A company does not break with tradition easily,” Bernays wrote nearly twenty years later. “The people in the Tropics were remote from Boston; they produced their banana quotas, and that was what counted. Fruit Company executives in the Tropics were tough characters who had come up through the ranks; they were action-related men. What I proposed must have seemed like mollycoddling. I got no reaction to my voluminous report.”
No, instead of instituting reforms, the new leader of the UFC, who had recently succeeded the aging Sam Zemurray, disbanded the Information Bureau.
So what could Eddie do? Was it time to stand on principle and look for more business elsewhere?
United Fruit’s shutdown of the information bureau and its refusal to redress what Bernays felt were deep-seated problems in its Latin American operations seemed like compelling reasons for Bernays to terminate his ties to the company. After all, he’d repeatedly admonished his PR colleagues not to represent unsavory clients and not to stick around when their advice was ignored. But leaving United Fruit would have meant giving up annual fees that reportedly reached $ 100,000. Instead, he resolved to stay on and work for change from the inside, however slowly that might come.
And thus history led Eddie inexorably on to his most ambitious PR job ever…doing PR for a war.
Well, not exactly a “war.” You could say it was more like a “military action,” I guess. A mini-war, you might call it. Although way out the other end of history it is clear that the events involved led, in the coming decades, to the deaths of over 100,000 people, including a virtual near-genocide of one race of people, and left over a million people homeless. Not bad for a mini-war.
It was a war in which few shots would be fired but upon which the very safety of the free world was said to hang. It was a war where words and symbols were the primary weapons, and Eddie Bernays was the principal source of ammunition. And in 1954 Bernays’s arsenal was as well stocked as it would ever be.
He had a plan for spying, one that involved putting in place a network of moles and flying in from Egypt a high-powered intelligence expert to survey enemy strengths and vulnerabilities.
He had a plan for waging psychological warfare, gathering for his side “authoritative information that will enable it to appraise the personality of the key men it has to deal with in order to survive.”
And another plan for wooing the press, acting as the eyes and ears of the New York Times, courting columnists like Drew Pearson, making life tough for critical journalists and rallying around friendly ones.
He even had a plan for contrasting his godless enemy’s outlook with that of Christianity on twenty-two vital issues. Under the enemy, for instance, “the ideal ruler is the efficient, ruthless tyrant,” whereas for the other side “the ideal ruler is Christ, the Good Shepherd, and those having authority from Him, who imitate Him.”
Eddie, of course, was a non-practicing Jew and basically an atheist…but no matter. Whatever works to sell your “product” and promote your client should be a tool in your arsenal, I guess.
Check the next entry in this series coming soon, which will examine some of the fascinating details of how Eddie waged his war…a war aimed at keeping bananas on your breakfast cereal at a “reasonable price.”
Oh. No. Wait. It was to Keep the World Safe for Democracy. Yeah. That’s it. For after all, we knew what True Patriots the owners of the United Fruit Company were. Indeed, they let the US government use their massive armada of ships to transport arms and such during both of the World Wars! So Eddie was just helping them to do their part again for Old Glory.
Yeah. That’s it. Hurrah for the red, white, and blue.
Oh, and while you’re waiting, you can have a look at
the Happy Face of United Fruit Company, Ms. Chiquita Banana,
singing her famous Number One Hit.