Geico has a reputation for catchy commercials and radio ads, and usually posts them on its website. The 30-second ad, “Pillow Soft Fortress,” notes that “home is more than just a place. Home is where you build a giant pillow fort in your living room.” If asked to explain the pillow fort, the narrator recommends, say it’s for your dog, making it the opening salvo in a “web of lies that’s almost as intricate as the crown molding in Fort Pillow.”
O’Connor said he first heard the ad on WTEM 980, a sports radio station in Washington, D.C., in February. “It was Black History Month, so it kind of ticked me off,” he said. “The average person wouldn’t know that it had racist implications, but I certainly do.”
Neither Geico nor WTEM 980 responded to requests for comment. But “Pillow Soft Fortress” disappeared from Geico’s website late Monday afternoon, after The Post reached out to company spokespeople. Later that evening, the ad’s writer, Molly Burke with The Martin Agency based in Richmond, said it was no longer being aired. It’s unclear whether Geico explicitly pulled the commercial from partner stations.
“When I originally wrote the spot a couple years ago, it was focused on the pure joy of kids (*cough* or adults) and their pillow forts,” Burke told The Post via email. “Had we known about the historical event you’re referencing, we would have tweaked the spot to not include it.”
O’Connor said he sent a handful of emails to Geico’s marketing team and the radio station to complain without receiving a response. When he heard the ad again on Monday morning, he reached out to The Post. To continue running the commercial in these times “shows their tone deafness to the issues at hand,” he wrote. “SHAME ON THEM.”
He said it was particularly troubling to hear the ad right after a radio host talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. The May 25 incident ushered a national reckoning about race, equality and police brutality, and heightened pressure on corporations to take a hard look at such issues as institutionalized bias and cultural sensitivity in everything from their brand logos to their hiring and promotion practices.
It also comes amid heightened scrutiny of Confederate symbols. Forrest is particularly controversial because of his roles at Fort Pillow and with the KKK, which used violence and intimidation to subvert Reconstruction policies and newly freed slaves. In 2018, a high-ranking official at the Department of Veterans Affairs was forced to remove a painting of Forrest from his office.
As the public reckons with street names, schools and buildings, brands are running into similar issues as many professionals in marketing and advertising don’t recognize the historical contexts behind names and images, said Judy Davis, an Eastern Michigan University professor who studies racism and historical research in marketing.
“In the past, the development of this type of imagery and naming was intentional — it was intended to foster and maintain cultural superiority,” Davis said in an email. “But today, however, a lot of brand names and symbols are based on ignorance of what these names and cultural symbols mean to African Americans and other people of color. This lack of knowledge is problematic.”
Fort Pillow’s history isn’t a forgotten one, especially among Civil War historians like O’Connor, who’s written four books about the lives of black soldiers, and Robert Ford, who relives that history as a reenactor.
Ford, who is also the president of the Civil War Round Table in Baltimore, said he was “appalled” by the Geico ad. “Remember Fort Pillow” was a battle cry for black soldiers for the rest of the war, he said.
“For those who are unaware, it’s kind of like if you put it in the context of today,” he said. “A lot of people weren’t aware that the advertising character of Aunt Jemima was an affront to black people, and we’ve lived with that all our lives.”
Quaker dropped the Aunt Jemima image and name from its pancake and syrup products just last week after years of criticism about racial stereotypes. Other companies have felt the backlash after running insensitive or racist ads. In May, Volkswagen apologized for a commercial depicting large white hands dragging a black man in the street and letters briefly flashing the German n-word. Last year, Gucci apologized for a blackface sweater.
When situations like these reach public discussion, critics often question who was seated at the table when the advertisement or product was made. In June, more than 600 black agency professionals signed a letter calling for the advertisement industry to take measurable steps in prioritizing black voices in leadership and the creative process, sparking public disclosures from ad agencies of diversity data. One of the steps listed in the letter called on agencies to “establish a diversity review panel to stem the spread of stereotypes in creative work and ensure offensive or culturally insensitive work is never published.”
Gregory Smithers, a Virginia Commonwealth University historian and the co-author of “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito,” called the ad “clumsy and insensitive,” and said it could’ve been prevented with background research.
“While a lot — maybe most — white listeners will hear a quirky ad and not think anything of it, for Black Americans it may well trigger some very distressing emotions,” Smithers said in an email. “That’s the power of advertising — it encodes cultural and historical narratives in subtle ways that allow advertisers to claim plausible deniability when it comes to offensive or insensitive content.”
Ford said Geico has a responsibility to teach others about the history behind Fort Pillow.
“Withdraw it and admit their ignorance and apologize, number one,” he said, when asked how the insurer should respond. “And number two, do something proactive to help educate folk about Fort Pillow and other atrocities that occurred.”