Mark Ellis had the icon of a Scotsman appear and disappear in his childhood, and years later wonders if political correctness can obfuscate vital truths.
The civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights struggles were definitely gathering steam in the mid 1970s, but in some peripheral universe far removed from my family’s upper middle class existence nestled in the Cascade foothills outside Silverton, Oregon. The concept of political correctness was toddling around, having come through infancy in the early part of the decade, but still not generally on white suburbanite radar.
We’d learned that racial injustice was an unfortunate byproduct of the great triumphs of American culture, for African Americans, Hispanics, and perhaps most egregiously, for Native Americans. Times were changing, and reforms to redress some of the injustice were gaining currency with each political season. But certain leaps we didn’t make.
The idea that advertising icons like Aunt Jemima, cartoon characters like Speedy Gonzales, and all-American team names like the Washington Redskins might be offensive to some people was off the plausibility scale and generally greeted with bemusement, if not derision.
That was until a particular Scotsman came to our house.
My father was a Safeway Stores lifer, and the grocery ladder of success had taken him from produce clerk in a tiny store in Oakland, California to District Manager in Salem, Oregon. Our family’s standard of living climbed right along with him. Four years in Hawaii helped Safeway establish a footprint on the islands. A stint in the Napa Valley after he was selected for the Engineering Division put him into 100,000+ dollar realms, real money in those days. Up next, a promotion to Retail Operations which propelled the Ellis family into three-story saltbox in cushy Lake Oswego, Oregon. Dad’s final promotion to the helm of the Salem district ensconced us in a sprawling ranch on twelve forested acres outside of Silverton in 1978.
Back before such practices were cracked down upon by corporate arbiters, merchandising reps were forever gifting product samples to Safeway’s decision makers. I remember magnificent gift boxes full of cheeses, fine deli meats, and exotic treats. Around the fourth of July we’d always get a complimentary case of Oscar Meyer franks and a few dozen min-American flags for our yard. One Easter the Almond Roca rep gave Dad so many single-serving samples that we all got sick of the stuff. The lovely boxed wine bottles were definitely not for us kids. There was usually a card attached, scrawled with something like, “Thank you, Mr. Ellis.”
It wasn’t just food and drink. When companies brought in new neon displays we often got the old one. A whimsically animated Hamm’s beer bear clock graced our den for years. Countless times I came home from school to find plush Pillsbury Doughboys piled on the sideboards, or Frankenberry tee shirts from the General Mills people.
One Christmas Eve Dad brought home the most finely-crafted, interior-lit Santa Claus statuette—one we would use for decades in our window thereafter—along with enough candy canes to choke a sleigh ride full of Clydesdale Horses.
Gifting the execs was standard operating procedure. Part of the cost of doing business, of getting your product noticed, and hopefully displayed in a good location by America’s first superstore. Nobody thought anything of it.
One spring in 1978 a big box of complementary items showed up on the kitchen table. But this time it was different. This time Safeway was self-gifting. It was an assortment of products from a new line the company was launching, a low-priced house brand that was designed to appeal to cost conscious customers looking for a better deal than they could get on the name brands, or even Safeway’s own mid-tier Town House brand.
I remember picking up a can of pears and looking at the unfamiliar label. It depicted a happy-looking Scotsman on a pure white field wearing a plaid tam o’shanter. The name of the new line was Scotch Buy. My mother opened the pears, and while they didn’t quite have the zing of Del Monte, with a little sugar they were perfectly edible.
The iconic Scotsman began to appear regularly on the shelves at home. Though we were a lot more comfortable in 1978 than we’d been during Dad’s salad days in produce, it looked good for him to have Mom stocking up on the company brands as she went through the checkout line. I got to where I knew which Scotch Buy items were good, and which ones I’d have to choke down.
The high-point in the campaign was a commercial featuring none other than Ray Bolger, the original Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz, who danced around pitching the line with a highlander’s accent.
But toward the end of that summer, as quickly as he had arrived, the smiling Scotsman disappeared. My father didn’t mince words around the dinner table, often talking business with my mother. “Scotch Buy has been pulled,” he told her one night, but he did not elaborate. From that moment on no jovial Scot peered out from under his tam on our cans of buttered beans. No more cut-rate cookies for four kids to devour sitting in front of the television. It was back to Town House.
What happened? Scottish people had complained.
Under the auspices of an Irish American advocacy group, an official protest was lodged about the connotations of the brand name. Press releases were generated, and media entities contacted. The complaint was obvious; so naming the bargain basement line was insensitive to say the least, and offensive at worst.
Safeway caved almost instantly. There was a very public apology, and the brand was removed from the shelves as fast as if it were contaminated with botulism. That feisty Scot was purged from all but the most archival records.
Safeway had invested untold profits to conceptualize, develop, produce, and distribute the Scotch Buy line. The campaign, from inception to withdrawal, had lasted less than a year. Apparently, not one of its creators, consultants, retail geniuses or executive green-lighters ever stopped to wonder if what they were cooking up might be considered offensive to the Scottish people.
By the time I got the full scoop on the Scotch Buy fiasco the baby-steps of political correctness were over. Women, people of color, and the GBLT community were demanding justice from the rooftops. But it was a jaunty Scotsman who first brought this idea home to our table: with sensitivity and intelligence we can avoid counterproductive stereotyping which any fair-minded person would admit was offensive to a certain group of people.
After getting out in the world and learning a thing or two about a thing or two, my adolescent perception of political correctness would evolve. For the most part, I didn’t like where things seemed to be going.
In the halls of academia, where rigid correctness is seeded in the minds of younger generations, distorted starting points led to strangled logic and truncated discussion. Being perceived as politically incorrect can be hazardous to an education, a social life, and a career, even for people espousing sensible ideas and positions.
PC infiltrated arts and culture, with self expression constricted by the confabulations of civilization’s self-appointed deconstructionists. Strong-arm tenets of federalized political correctness have been interpreted to include the ability to mandate to faith-based institutions policies that are anathema to their beliefs.
When allowed to disproportionately inform our policies, runaway correctness can be used to obfuscate vital truths. So much so that we strip-search children at airports, and confiscate mother’s milk, all in the name of not insulting good people of the Muslim religion, despite the fact that it was a fractional but dangerous percentage of Islamic radicals who necessitated the heightened security in the first place.
Such correctness can provoke charges of bigotry to be leveled at people who believe in American sovereignty, as defined by secure borders and legal immigration. People who support equal treatment and specific civil rights for gays but who also believe the institution of marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman, become intolerant homophobes. Question the ultimate effectiveness of affirmative action and you might be characterized as a social Neanderthal.
In extreme examples, the tortured imperatives of PC can lead to the granting of tax-payer funded sex change operations for convicted and incarcerated murderers.
And criticizing a President of color can be spun into racial motivations that should be an embarrassment to the society that elected him in the first place.
When the concept of political correctness first found a place at our table, I found it a strange new way of looking at society, but I could understand the feelings of the Scots at being cast in such a penurious light. In the real world, political correctness had run amuck, recasting societal behavior with an overlay of divisiveness, anxiety, and obtuse cognition.
I would come to believe that when we turn that sensitive core concept into a beast driven by political considerations and conjured by bureaucrats and power mongers to skew reality and exact questionable atonement, we turn the fair play of reasoned political correctness into an insatiable creature which is worse than anything it was meant to redress.
And I have the funny feeling that the Scotsman who used to be on Safeway’s bargain pears would agree with me.
Originally published on Northwest Free Press
Image courtesy of the author