Cookies & Bars · Uncategorized

The Duncan Hines Debacle

Duncan Hines Hip Hop Cupcakes

Rarely does our blog venture into the world of relatively serious political or social commentary. This is a place to share recipes, food photos and anecdotes about the fun and funny things that happen in our lives. But there has been a bit of a controversy in the baking world, and it is something that affects both of us and maybe some of our readers. Last week, Duncan Hines launched its Amazing Glazes line of frostings with a commercial advertising campaign for “Hip Hop Cupcakes”. Vanilla cupcakes are placed on a table top, covered with a squeeze tube of chocolate glaze and then grow faces and begin to sing. It sounds very cute of course, but a large number of people found fault with this commercial almost immediately. We were in the bunch who felt a twinge of discomfort. The faces had large, buggy eyes and overgrown pink lips that harken back to the images of African-American blackface characterizations seen in the days of America’s minstrel show history. And this is where the controversy began. So much so that Duncan Hines pulled the commercial from its Youtube channel. Messy situations always leave crumbs, and many people across community lines are expressing how they feel about the issue.

In case you missed the Duncan Hines advertising tragedy that baked up last week, please see below. Depending on when you see this post, the media may be unavailable due to the company’s desire to remove the video following complaints that it is full of racist imagery.

Whether or not you feel that the commercial is racist is a matter of opinion. The problem is bigger than that, and it is something that falls on the shoulders of every corporation or company, not just Duncan Hines. Corporations and their advertising arms must be in tune with cultural sensitivities. This entire campaign may have been created with the intention of introducing irresistibly loveable, singing cupcakes, but there are remarkably evident traits of blackface appearance on these autotuned baked goods questionably singing “hip hop” doo wop. To think that no one on the advertising or marketing team would consider potential consumers could find fault in the commercial is interesting in itself. Of course, it can be argued that someone will find fault with anything, and that is where many on the opposing side say to leave the issue alone–it’s just a commercial with cute cupcakes. No racism at all. When Amazon touted a guide for pedophiles, an author’s right to free speech and a private company’s ability to sell a legal product were far outweighed by thousands of angry people who found it to be a dangerous ‘resource’ to sell to the public. Not to mention a bad look for Amazon’s company profile. Should the book have stayed on the online shelves? Should we all reevaluate just how free speech can be and just how politically incorrect something has to be to be racist?

Amazon felt the push back and removed the book. Duncan Hines felt the push back and dropped the commercial. The online ad was a disappointing and disheartening marketing technique to sell what could have been cute cupcakes. We can label the commercial racist or not, but it was somewhat uncouth if people are familiar with African-Americans’ portrayal in minstrel shows and consider the campaign’s title, “Hip Hop Cupcakes”. Not everybody will see it that way, but many have, and that is an important reaction to respect. Thankfully Duncan Hines has removed the commercial entirely, but many of us wish it had not been created in the first place.

It is interesting to see how even the food world–a place full of cupcakes and brownies–can be soiled by one incident. The not so fun aspects of life trickle down into even the smallest areas that bring us joy. This blog post is not to make anyone uncomfortable, but mainly to express a point of view. Duncan Hines’ commercial is actually a circumstance of the larger issue of corporate and consumer responsibility. Corporations have to be more cognizant of the messages they portray and the methods with which they portray them, and consumers have the right to accept or deny those messages and methods. At the end of the day, we all have the ability to say what will and what will not be tolerated either with our words or our crisp dollars. We are members of a growing faction of brown bloggers, specifically brown food bloggers. We have buying power. It is not good practice for any company to ruffle the feathers of a purchasing constituency.

We do not use a lot of box mixes when we bake. Most of the time, we enjoy doing it from scratch. If a time is to come that we should need a quick fix from the box, needless to say, the first (and last) choice will not be Duncan Hines. Who needs their pre-packaged powder if we can make our own brown buttered, chocolate chip-laced, toasted walnut-littered, espresso-hinted brownies? Hopefully, down the line, folks at Duncan Hines will be better informed about and considerate with their advertising methods.

If you feel comfortable sharing your opinion about the Duncan Hines “Hip Hop Cupcakes” advertisement, please feel free. If you’d prefer to just tell us about your favorite brownie, that’s perfectly fine too. This blog, like the entire web of the internet, is an open forum for opinion, but we do ask that you be respectful of others. Our friends Courtney of Coco Cooks, Bren of Flanboyant Eats, Chrysta of Kiss My Bundt , Lara of Food. Soil. Thread., Lisa of Anali’s First Amendment and Marye of Restless Chipotle have also posted their views of the situation.

Brown Butter Walnut Brownies-The Duo Dishes

Brown Butter Walnut Brownies – 2 dozen (or 4 dozen bite-sized)
1 cup unsalted butter
4 ounces 72% dark chocolate, chopped
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups walnut halves, toasted
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Set the butter in a small pan over medium heat and cook until it has completely melted, turned brown and the milk solids begin to raise to the top, approximately 8-10 minutes. Stir and turn down the heat to medium low to prevent burning. Remove the butter from heat and allow to cool slightly.

2. Pour the chocolate pieces into a heat-resistant metal bowl and set over a pot of simmer water. Scrape in the brown butter and stir occasionally, allowing the chocolate to mix. Place the metal bowl to the set and allow to cool, approximately 5 minutes.

3. While the chocolate and butter mixture cools, whisk together the sugar, eggs and vanilla until smooth. Stir in the slightly cooled chocolate and mix well.

4. Add the flour, espresso powder and salt to the chocolate and stir until just combined. Finally, fold in the chocolate chips and nuts. Pour the batter into a buttered and lightly floured 9″ x 11″ baking dish and slide into an oven preheated to 350 degrees. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until done. Cool for approximately 10 minutes, then slice.

Click HERE for the printable recipe.


Chrystal is in the running to present a panel discussion on food blogging at Blogging While Brown 2011. Click HERE to give her panel a ‘thumbs up’. Your support is always appreciated!

34 thoughts on “The Duncan Hines Debacle

  1. Of course it’s racist. It’s the same way they used to draw black people – black face, big white bulging eyeballs, big red lips, singing and dancing.

  2. I totally agree about your stand on this; as a Lebanese-American, I am very aware of the subtle or not-so-subtle racism that permeates almost every media when it comes to minorities; in my case, I am so incensed by Arabs always being portrayed by Hollywood as stupid, primitive, violent, etc people. So I can understand this very well.
    I hate cake mixes and never use them; I think it makes the cakes taste like medicine; yet I used to work at a bakery that only used cake mixes *Duncan hines, among them, in their products and then would doctor them up with more sugar and liqueur etc.
    Is intolerance a human trait? After seeing its manifestation all over the planet, I am afraid it is. Still, it needs to be fought. Great post.

  3. I’ve hadn’t heard of the controversy or seen the commercial until now. It’s beyond me how an advertising firm, who is paid to develop ads and “read the pulse of America”, or Duncan Hines didn’t see that this could possibly be offensive. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, well said. Now for the brownies – I don’t eat many brownies, but when I do they have to be moist and accompanied by a large glass of ice cold milk 🙂 Merry Christmas C&A!

  4. A well written post! I didn’t have enough time yesterday when I wrote the first comment. that’s why I just wrote on your brownies.

    Although this is a food blog, it’s good to read about such social issues here. Such companies should absolutely be more careful on these topics. I’m not an American, so I may not be that close to the racism against black people. However, I must say that I definitely think that the commercial has racist attitude with the eyes and lips. I’m sure there are million of designs to animate chocolate. Even the name of the product (hip hop) sounds like it has something to do with black people. Noone has a right to show any race or ethnic group as a cute ‘thing’.

    Thanks for this post!

  5. Waw!! Those brown butter bro<wnies look to die for,..really!

    MMMMM,..I wish you two a lovely & fun Christmas & a Happy & healthy 2011!!!

    Yeah to these festive brownies!

  6. I had not heard of the controversy or seen the commercial until now. I’ll be honest and say I would not have perceived this as “black face” or even “hip hop”. My first thought would have been a cappella or baroque, just from a musical standpoint.

    My thoughts on the eyes and lips are I wonder if someone asked me to animate a cupcake (I’m not a graphic artist) regardless of the color of frosting or the cake, I would think it would have to have some exaggerated dimension to make it stand out.

    Not standing up for Duncan Hines because I don’t think I’ve bought one of their products in 20 years. I’m just saying these aren’t the inferences I would have drawn from the commercial. But everyone brings their own experiences.

  7. I saw this on the news and had to go to a couple sites before seeing the video because it kept being pulled. When I first read an article I thought perhaps it had been blown out of proportion and merely putting brown frosting on a cupcake doesn’t mean they were “blackfaced.” However, the second I saw the commercial I definitely understood. I’m white, but still felt very uncomfortable with the commercial. Like you said, the buggy eyes and large lips were not necessary. Neither was the name “Hip Hop” – that music isn’t even hip hop to begin with, sounds like some kind of techno. I just think the whole commercial and campaign was in bad taste. It COULD have been a cute singing cupcake commercial had they used some common sense, but I think they crossed a line and it went into the “too far” direction. I’m not sure it was intentional on their end, though. I don’t think it was meant to be malicious, just stupidity and ignorance on their part.

  8. I felt that the ad was a bit stereotypical. I did get a tinge of discomfort as I watched it. I’m not african American but I’m a minority so I do shake my head at stereotypes.

    As far as brownies, my favorite brownie is the corner piece 🙂

  9. This says to me one thing: amongst all the people making the ad, and all the people approving the ad, not a ONE of them was from the African-American community.

    I guess it’s just white folks – and specifically, the kind of white folks whose minds go to blackface stereotypes naturally – making the decisions over at Duncan Hines.

    Then again, if I was an African-American person considering taking a job at Duncan Hines, I suppose I wouldn’t want to work there either.

  10. These are some serous brownies. They look delicious.

    I watched the commercial & actually wouldn’t have picked-up on it being racist at all, maybe that’s just me after seeing the comments above, but I didn’t see that.

  11. I haven’t seen that commercial in Canada. I guess it was launched in US only. The concept is not bad but they should change the lips and eyes. I feel bad that this happened in the States. Duncan Hines is a big company and should know better not to make a mistake like this one.

  12. “Not everybody will see it that way, but many have, and that is an important reaction to respect.”

    Very well said. Thank you for sharing your opinion; I agree wholeheartedly.

  13. Great comment Candice. I agree.

    When I viewed this a week or so ago, the imagery was obvious to me. However, after living in New Hampshire for the last few years, I know this would not be the case for everyone. If I showed this video to a class at school or to many of my colleagues, they might not catch on at all. Should advertising companies, hire a board of different types of people to review their advertisements? Yes, that would be a good idea. Do people need to boycott Duncan Hines? I’d say probably not. I think there are bigger, more blatant and intentional issues, that could use our attention.

  14. I have to agree that DH and its parent company (and advertising firm) showed extremely poor judgment all the way around with this commercial. Very well written post about the subject. I applaud you for sharing your views and reaching out. Those brownies look spectacular too!

  15. Very well said. This is an excellent and necessary post – I think it’s important to discuss and bring this to the table…

    I don’t buy Duncan Hines products though, and hopefully they will learn something from this.

  16. Well said! As an Asian American, I sometimes want to scream “How the hell did someone let that advertisement (of yet another Geisha girl) go out?!” I think this is the case with this advertisement. I hope that the backlash will educate all companies about the diverse audience they serve. – mary

  17. It’s interesting to comment on this since I work in advertising. It’s always amazing to me when something makes it through that is offensive because my experience is that SO much testing goes into making so many ads (even more so for adds that are backed by a big CPG company like the case of this ad). Generally much of what I work on is exposed to consumers (and actually bringing ads to consumers is a big part of my job in general) so usually these kind of things get raised at that point. Of course no system is perfect and things still squeak through. It is sad that no one noticed, but to me not that surprising.

    I enjoy my industry, but most advertising agencies are the least diverse corporations ever and as a result people are sometimes ignorant to their own actions. I think often if it doesn’t effect someone personally they are unaware of how it might hurt others. It sucks and it makes me sad for my whole industry when things sneak through. 😦

  18. The buggy eyes and the big pink lips are almost identical to what you’ll find in old racist advertising and entertainment.

    What is really sad is that NO ONE at the Duncan Hines office realized the inference that was given with their ad. We may have an African-America president in office, but the ghosts of Stepin Fetchit and Aunt Jemima are standing right behind him.

  19. Great post. Even if no harm was meant – and I doubt it was – that’s not really the point. The point is the utter stupidity and cluelessness of this campaign. It shows such an unbelievable lack of awareness or understanding of … oh, anything. Thanks to my DVR I forward through commercials and hadn’t seen this, but if I had my jaw would have hit the floor. (Which it did watching the clip here.)


    I’d like to say I’ll boycott them but since I never buy box mixes or any of their products anyway there wouldn’t be much point!

  20. The commercial is coyly sweet and funny. People’s reactions are more diverse than the ad’s concept. I’m casually annoyed at another commercial corporation marketing their new product with another boring Hip Hop theme, and this time using blackface imagery. Am I upset and uncomfortable? No. Will I continue to see it in our community’s retail stores? Yes. Will life go on? It sure will, and I’m happy to know how to bake a cake from scratch without ever using a cake mix. In addition, I have a few cake recipes that’s just as instant as a box mix. Will I ever purchase Duncan Hines products, again? Not really (not like I ever did in the first place, although I’ve enjoyed several people’s “homemade cakes” made from a box recipe).

  21. Duo Dishes,

    Well-rounded post–I think you tackled for me what’s the heart of the issue–Duncan Hines should have had someone on staff that said “Hey, this COULD be perceived as racist and at the very least negatively impact our minority base” and stopped the video from going public.

    The lack of diversity (race or perspectives) at Duncan Hines is dangerous for any company with a multicultural, global potential consumer base. When you don’t have diversity of ideas, especially among people with decisionmaking authority, you get public relations challenges like these “Hip Hop Cupcakes”.

    When I was a little girl growing up in the American South, my mom was the only African-American manager in her division and she served AT&T as their Diversity Manager. I remember her teaching me about cultural sensitivity at age 8 over an ad that AT&T corporate created that wasn’t sensitive at all. She immediately knew it would be bad–and it turned out that way for AT&T.

    The concept of the ad was that AT&T Universal Card was available around the world. Innocent so far, right? The ad’s visuals were a map of the world, and on each continent was a cartoon drawing of a child in ethnic garb. The US has a “white” looking boy in a baseball uniform maybe. Over Europe was a Dutch looking girl in clogs. Over Asia was a Japanese girl in a Kimono. Over the continent of Africa was a dark black monkey with pink lips and a big smile.

    I don’t think AT&T’s executives sat around a table and said “Let’s poke fun of blacks by having their continent not be represented by a child but instead a savage animal–a gorilla!–since slaves and their decendents were called that. This’ll be great!”

    Instead what happens in these corporations is the lack of cultural sensitivity that allows campaigns like these past the cutting room floor.

    23years later I remember that AT&T ad.

    Thank you for writing about this issue. Perhaps the net-effect of this DuncanHines-gate is that your readers go to their industries a little more aware of how they can introduce cultural sensitivity in their daily grind.


    Chrysta Wilson
    Kiss My Bundt Bakery
    (sent via IPhone so please excuse any typos)

  22. I don’t think it was as nefarious as it seems. It’s a big blaring stupid mistake for sure but I seriously doubt they meant any harm by it. Some people just aren’t aware of what they are doing. But I am quite sure someone had objections about this and more than likely said nothing about it. There had to have been planning meetings where this was discussed. so who didn’t speak up while some was about to committ career suicide?

    I don’t think it’s any reason to boycott their products either. If they didn’t pull the commercial after they clearly upset people and refused to acknowledge their mistake then you can pull out the pitch forks.

    Interesting questions though, if they had a white glaze and featured it at the same time or a caramel glaze would anyone have said anything at all if they represented a multicultural line of cupcake characters? Or say they only had white characters. Would anyone have said it was racist to call all white people vanilla? Or would they have been mad that other races weren’t being represented?

  23. I heard about the Duncan Hines debacle last week when I was writing a post about the Cakewalk which is so similar in many ways to the themes of racism w/ this latest issue. I enjoyed reading this and think it is so important to start dialogues like this– thanks!

  24. Every few years there’s a commercial that somehow gets made without anyone realizing it could be offensive. I remember the Calvin Klein ads in the 90s with little kids in the their underwear that was considered to be child pornography. Why did they ever think it was okay? I don’t know. Somehow these bad ideas become real advertising. I hope eventually people will learn their lessons. Films and tv pilots are often aired for private audiences to get public opinions before they are finalized for release. I don’t see why advertisers don’t use this to see if people find commercials to be effective, or in this case, racist. Maybe if the frosting wasn’t chocolate, people would never think they were racist cupcakes, but in the end they chose chocolate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. I hadn’t seen the ad until now. I never use packaged mixes either, but I hope that Duncan Hines will learn from this and not repeat these mistakes in the future.

  25. Hmm… C, see that’s the problem.. how could any one NOT see these as racist?? The imagery is so bold and so in your face “Look at me, I want to be like the cool black kids with big lips and super white eyes!” It’s not funny in the least–not b/c there’s anything with having big lips or bulging eyes, rather b/c of the stereotypes associated with it!

    Glad we all came to agree to writing about this… I hope our readers will be slightly interested in what we have to say.

  26. Oh my god that sounds terrible! I actually hadn’t heard about this but you are so totally right. There needs to be much more cultural sensitivity in this country if we are ever going to get to the point where these stereotypes are merely a figment of the past. Ridiculous.

    I don’t use Duncan Hines products anyway, but I certainly won’t ever again in the future.

    These brownies. Amazing. Way better than any boxed mix, that’s for sure.

  27. Brown butter walnut brownies! No box mix can replicate that divine flavor.
    Excellent, responsible and sensitive post. It’s time for corporate America and Media to respect minority buying power and show more cultural sensitivity.
    Sometimes we just need to speak up when we see wrong.

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