History of Gerber Baby
In 1928, the Fremont Canning Company, which we know today as the Gerber Products Company, launched a campaign to find an image of a baby to represent the brand’s baby food. As photography was far from commonplace during this time, a slew of drawings and paintings were submitted. These images ranged from simple sketches to professional portraits of babies. After consideration of all the submissions, the judges selected child portrait artist, Dorothy Hope Smith’s simple charcoal sketch. While she proposed to finish it professionally, the company decided to use the sketch submitted as the Gerber Baby symbol to appear on all advertisements and product packaging. Within the first two months of the launch of Gerber’s strained food product, the “Gerber Baby” symbol gained national recognition, and by six months post-launch, was internationally distributed. By the end of its first year, over half a million cans of baby food were sold across the world. And perhaps not surprisingly, a 1998 survey conducted in the United States revealed the Gerber Baby trademark was associated with the highest consumer loyalty.
People have speculated whether the original Gerber Baby was someone famous like Elizabeth Taylor but in 1978, it was revealed she is Ann Turner Cook, an English teacher, and mystery novelist.
A New Gerber Baby
In 2010, close to 80 years after the original Gerber baby contest, the company decided to launch its first photo contest for a new Gerber Baby to appear on its marketing campaigns for the following year, 2011. This came about after receiving countless baby photos from parents who see their own babies in the iconic Gerber Baby symbol. While the company believed that every baby was a Gerber Baby, the company decided to formalize it by inviting families of all backgrounds to submit photos of babies. The criteria for selecting a chubby-cheeked winner includes a cute factor or visual appeal, expressiveness and consistency with Gerber’s heritage, and its “Anything for Baby” mission. Since 2010, it has become an annual contest, takes place for a couple of weeks, and receives hundreds of thousands of entrants. In addition to becoming the face of Gerber for a year, the winners historically have received a monetary reward from $25,000-$50,000, as well as other material prizes.
Other Firsts for Gerber Baby
Looking back on the past winners of Gerber’s photo contests, the company has proven its dedication to showing that every baby is a Gerber baby. The first-ever photo contest winner for 2011, Mercy Townsend, was a Black 2-year old beaming with delight after a bath. Her mom submitted the photo of her daughter after seeing the contest on a friend’s Facebook page winning over 217,000 applicants. In 2014, Levi & Paxton Strickland were the first twins to represent the Gerber Baby, or babies, in this case. That year, 156,000 entrants competed for the spot. A few years later in 2018, Gerber announced another first, Lucas Warren, a one-year-old with Down Syndrome. During an interview, his mom mentioned she submitted her son’s photo on a whim after a relative pointed her to an ad about the contest. Lucas beat out over 140,000 other submissions. When Lucas’ mom heard the news, it struck her that perhaps her son would show the world that a child with special needs is not just viewed and defined as a disability, but also can be seen as a funny, active kid who loves playing with friends, just like every other baby. And regarding how she hopes people view all kids with disabilities, “They have the potential to change the world, just like everybody else.” In 2019, the 15-month old Kairi Yang became the first Gerber Baby of Hmong descent. She won over 544,000 other submissions. The President and CEO of the Gerber told Today Parents that “Kairi was chosen because of the wide-eyed curiosity and the look of wonder we saw in her eyes. Her expressiveness in the winning photo reminds us of looking to the future through a child’s eyes and being excited for all that it holds.” Kairi’s parents mentioned that when both heard the news, it was easy to quickly share it as the family shared a home not only with a daughter but parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
2020 Reveals A New First For Gerber
Staying with the momentum of firsts, Gerber announced Magnolia Earl as its 2020 winner, the first adopted baby. She was in the running with over 327,000 other contestants. One-year-old Magnolia has two older sisters, ages 8 and 12 years old, who are also adopted. After the announcement, Bill Partyka, President and CEO of Gerber wrote, “At a time when we are yearning for connection and unity, Magnolia and her family remind us of the many things that bring us together: our desire to love and be loved, our need to find belonging, and our recognition that family goes way beyond biology.” Magnolia’s parents, who only met and connected with Magnolia’s birth parents hours before the birth, revealed that the families remain in contact.
When I first saw an image of the 2020 Gerber Baby, I saw an adorable Black baby smiling back at me. As a member of various online groups focused on culture, race, and adoption, I was confused by the uproar about her adoption status from these communities. Lengthy, diverse, in-depth, and sometimes heated conversations took place online, where it seems no longer intimidating to say what you feel. Questions arose. Was her adoption status a tool to win the contest? Was her Blackness being erased since she was the only non-White family? Was it right to define her by her adoption, or was it wrong not to? As an international transracial adoptee, these sorts of topics are no stranger to me, but after being exposed to so many different views, my perspective on Magnolia’s win broadened. Below, you can find my thoughts.
Was Her Adoption Status a Tool to Win the Contest?
From the reading I have done, statements from Gerber indicate that her adoption status did give her an edge or possibly, the edge to win in 2020. While Gerber has listed its submission criteria and what characteristics the company uses to select winners, which seem pretty general and subjective, I’m not surprised by the company’s need to employ another filter to whittle down a winner from the hundreds of thousands of entrants. The last three years of Gerber Babies have included firsts to highlight something about a child that has not previously been in the spotlight. Before 2020, these traits included race, genetic conditions, and twin status. Adding adoption to the list of firsts seems appropriate and fitting for the situation. Not every child becomes part of a family the same way, so bringing attention to this very real process and normalizing it feels like a great message. Adoption, while it has been around for centuries, the formalization of it as well as the laws surrounding it, has morphed. Also, the willingness of people to talk about this topic has only recently emerged as no longer a taboo topic. Open adoptions and communication are seen as a great strength to adoptions and revealing stories.
In the US, there are over 100,000 children waiting to be adopted. Combining this information with the fact that the maternal age is increasing and contributing to fertility challenges, adoption seems quite timely. By selecting Magnolia as a winner, Gerber reminded the world that a family can form in many ways, not just the traditional way.
Was Her Blackness Being Erased Since She Was the Only Non-White Family Member?
I think one of the aspects of what made Magnolia’s win so controversial, especially in the adoption community directly, is that she is a Black baby adopted by an all-White family. For many adoptees, this reeks the “White savior” mentality, which refers to a White person helping out a non-White person in a self-serving manner. Was Magnolia’s adoption being used to benefit her White family financially, or in other ways? I suppose since the prize did include $25,000, one could see it that way or interpret the family’s intentions in that way. But more importantly, had Magnolia been adopted for some self-serving manner? Seeing an adopted child of a different race from her adopted parents raises questions as to whether that child’s identity, race, background, and culture are maintained when raised in a home in contrast to that child’s. And this issue often goes hand in hand with the topic of White savior as some transracial adoptees feel he or she has been adopted to merely fulfill the desire and blueprint of what the adoptive parents want in a child. The result is erasing everything about the child from his or her past. While I can’t know for sure the intentions of Magnolia’s adoptive family, I can only hope that the adoptive parents’ connection to Magnolia’s birth family allows her to retain and celebrate all that she is.
Was It Right to Define Her By Her Adoption, or Was It Wrong Not To?
For me, this has been the most challenging question and comes with some personal insight and experience. I was adopted as an infant by one parent of the same race and one parent of a different race. Even though there was no question when people looked at us that I was not biologically related to my adoptive mother, I did not see the difference for a while. And when my relative broke the news to me when I was four years old, I could not comprehend what adoption meant. My life changed at that moment. It defined me and seeped into every interaction with my adoptive parents, friends, and later, my romantic relationships. My adoptive parents were waiting for the right time to tell me, or perhaps my parents hoped I would not notice as a young child. While I was assured that my adoption status did not make me any more or less loved than my brother, my adoptive parents’ biological child, I felt different knowing about my adoption. I had so many questions, and most went unanswered. My adoptive parents were uncomfortable talking about it, or maybe my mom and dad did not want my adoption to define me. But like most things, the more this topic was, in a way, forbidden, the more I wanted to know my story. I became obsessed with it. At one point in my life, I also tried hiding it, but then the pendulum swung, so to speak, and I would talk to anyone about my adoption who would listen. It was a big part of me and my story and my identity. For those who don’t know about my adoption in general, I feel like those people really don’t know me until that topic is grasped.
Reflecting on whether Magnolia’s adoption should have been noted during the announcement of her win, I personally believe and think it was a good idea to note the adoption. Not noting it would only erase a big part of who she is and where she comes from. As a baby who has no idea that she is being promoted for something so integral to her being and life, I can only wonder what she will think in years to come as she grows and continues to learn. Yet, hearing that she is one of three adopted children in her family gives me some hope that her adoptive family understands how much her adoption will influence her life. Her adoptive parents have given very few details about Magnolia’s adoption and birth family, which I appreciate, as it is really her own story to share. Let us remember that adoptees while being so much more than adoption, can never separate him or herself from it. Magnolia is an adorable baby, who is Black, female, adopted and so many other things. I hope we remember to celebrate all of her.
*Photo taken from the Chicago Sun Times*