Anyone who has been to Trader Joe’s will recognize its 19th century periodical style illustrations. These historical cartoons are meant to be comical, but their subtext is dark.
From popcorn to paper towels, recognizing the history of imperialism printed on your groceries should leave a bitter taste.
The illustration style on Trader Joe’s packaging, bags and publications mimics the woodblock printing technique, a print style widely used in Victorian mass media production. The Victorian era is notorious for British Colonialism, chattel slavery and the American Civil War and yet, Trader Joe’s chooses to emulate its style.
The content of supermarket advertising may seem trivial, but advertising is everywhere and we must be critical of what messages we are sold. Companies hire entire marketing teams to curate their images — everything they distribute is intentional.
It is ignorant and offensive to use the visual tropes of settler colonialism to sell groceries. No one should profit off whitewashing the past.
Trader Joe’s paper towel packaging pokes fun at aristocrats discussing modern amenities. On one side, a man in a waistcoat and bow tie argues with his servants about what makes Trader Joe’s paper towels so good. On the other side, a woman in ornate dress stands wrapped in a paper towel with the words, “these paper towels are always in fashion.”
Women with parasols, men in tails and civilized dining tables with silver plates are often associated with the beauty of the Victorian age. But romanticizing that time as an era of cultural refinement means glossing over the realities of colonialism.
The aristocracy of the 19th century were an upper class whose wealth came from exploitative labor practices, human rights abuses and entrenched class divisions. Trader Joe’s is ignoring the legacy, and lasting effects, of colonial racism.
Even the name Trader Joe’s insinuates the colonial fantasy of traveling to foreign lands and plundering their resources. A trader, Joe, travels the world collecting exotic fancies to bring back to civilization to be consumed by members of the imperializing nation.
A 1990s Trader Joe’s advertisement used the woodblock printing style to illustrate 19th century commerce vessels at the shores of a land mass peppered with white flags labeled, “TJ.” This image is blatantly imperial and illustrates the foundation of settler colonialism. White explorers discover land they consider uninhabited, stake their claim, extract resources and leave destruction in their wake.
So, next time you see an idyllic scene of high-class white people prancing around the packaging of your Trader Joe’s snacks, consider what is left out.
Trader Joe’s Imperial imagery extends beyond woodblock illustrations. Stores stock products branded with variations of the name Trader Joe’s based on their region of origin. Products sold under private labels include Trader Joe-San teriyaki sauce, Trader Ming’s stir fry sauce, Trader Giotto’s pasta sauce and Trader Jose’s taco shells. Marketing like this relies on stereotyped imaginings of the cuisines of other countries, a trend originating in the 19th century when Europeans and Americans became obsessed with acquiring so-called authentic foods, artifacts and artworks from around the world. Although most westerners never traveled outside their countries, they stereotyped foreigners based on the forms of visual culture that reached their homes through advertisements and foreign products.
Trader Joe’s perpetuates these stereotypes by marketing products that reduce entire cultures to a name and an ingredient. As consumers it’s time to stop accepting stereotypes as normal, it’s time to call out everyday instances of racism and it’s time for Trader Joe’s to reconsider what narratives it promotes by turning colonialism into kitsch.