Chiquita’s brand image comes across as fun and playful, but the company has some dark history. Chiquita’s original name was United Fruits before rebranding and was an extremely powerful business in South America; so powerful that it had great influence over the local government. When the government tried to regain control in the 1950s, UF launched a PR campaign in retaliation, portraying the Guatemalan government as communist. Meanwhile, UF was branded as the crusader against communism in South and Central America (PS: The Guatemalan government was not, in fact, communist). The campaign was successful and led to a CIA coup to overthrow Guatemala’s leaders.
So how did all of this unfold?
A Little Bit of Background…
United Fruits: South America’s Large Monopoly
To say United Fruits had some influence in South America during the 20th century would be an understatement. UF completely dominated much of the Western Hemisphere, with effects as far-reaching as changing the pattern of rain, moving rivers, and accelerating the cycles of harvest.
Through UF’s extreme means, it made bananas available on a fantastic scale. The fruit went from being virtually unknown in the 1870’s to being the world’s fourth major food, following rice, wheat, and milk. And for much of the 20th century, UF held 90% share of the banana market. This was all thanks to the founders’ lofty goals of controlling rail, shipping, and governments in Central America. The main company founder Minor Keith was so committed to influencing the government that he married the daughter of Costa Rica’s president.
The sheer magnitude of UF’s company size made it an important player in many Central American economies, which granted it its substantial influence over local governments, and made popular the term “banana republic.”
Edward Bernays: “The Father of Public Relations”
Bernays was famous for turning PR into a formal field of study. Another famous campaign of his was on behalf of Lucky Strike cigarettes, where he convinced members of the fashion industry to use the color green so that women would be more likely to buy the cigarettes (they were concerned the green package clashed with their wardrobe). When Bernays began working for UF, he helped create the famous Senorita Chiquita Banana character and persuaded the public that bananas cured celiac disease. But serious ethical issues were yet to come in Guatemala.
Conflict in Central America
New Government Leaders Rock the Boat
Guatemala was one of the most important countries to UF early on. For a long time, it was the most corrupt, and therefore, the most pliable. When left wing democratic president Jacobo Arbenz came into power in 1950, it was a problem for UF’s prior control over the country’s government and citizens. Arbenz wanted to crack down on the UF’s massive influence through land reforms. UF didn’t like this and chose to use PR to maintain power.
Bernays and UF React
Bernays launched a massive effort in the US to discredit Guatemala’s government by labeling them communist. He flew reporters of major newspapers and magazines to Guatemala. The hosts then carefully controlled the reporters’ experiences while within the country to portray Guatemala as a communist state. This led to massive publications, including The New York Times, publishing stories exposing Guatemala’s communism. In contrast, they portrayed UF/Chiquita as the great crusader against communism. The stories were fabricated and had one purpose: to weaken the Guatemalan government in order to strengthen UF.
PR Influences the CIA
Ultimately, Bernays’ PR efforts led to action by the US government itself. When the articles about Guatemala were printed, Bernays worked to distribute them to top US officials. He successfully swayed them. Exposed in 1997, the CIA armed and trained the Liberation Army under the command of an exiled Guatemalan army officer. The result was the overthrowing of Arbenz as president and a 40 year civil war. Some speculate that had it not been for the war, Central and South America may have seen their governments go in a different, more positive direction, rather than the great corruption that still exists in many of its countries.
PR and Questionable Ethics?
The Chiquita/UF story highlights two important lessons about public relations. First, it’s clearly a powerful tool that can have great influence on the public perception. In some circumstances, its power can go beyond just perception and can lead to something like government action. This is often on a much smaller scale than CIA coups – think lobbyists and influencing legislation. Knowing that PR can have this great an influence, however, means that PR persons need to be ethical. Bernays and UF’s PR campaign had a disastrous effect on the region. If a PR effort helps the company but harms the public, then these actions must be reconsidered. When participating in PR, always strive to do no harm, because a very ugly side of PR does exist.
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