II10. Will the "Real" Ben & Jerry’s Please Step Forward?


The notion that people are constantly being deceived through non-stop commercial advertisements is hardly foreign to many consumers, despite their commonality. In fact, I would go so far to say that the contemporary consumer is "reality starved". Many of today’s consumers will go to great lengths to find a product that is defined as "real" or "natural". And this is exactly what Ben & Jerry’s offers to their customers. Their first television advertisement (cf. p. 40) focused upon this aspect of their business. A second radio advertisement, one that was meant to compete with a local brand of ice-cream (Steve’s) that had a similar packaging appearance (right down to the "fake head", as they called it, on the top of the pint lid), also focused upon the reality issue. This is how the jingle went:


There ain’t no Häagen, there ain’t no Dazs,

There ain’t no Frusen, there ain’t no Glädj’

There ain’t nobody named Steve at Steve’s,

But there’s two real guys at Ben & Jerry’s.


(Lager, 1994: 192)


"Our biggest advantage," says Chico Lager, "was that there was a Ben and Jerry, and the fake head on the Steve’s pint wasn’t Steve. Our company had what Faith Popcorn, a consultant on consumer trends, had come to describe as ‘real sell’, which she defined as ‘delivering a real message in a real way’…" (1994: 140).


However, paid commercial advertisements were not the primary medium by which Ben & Jerry’s brought their product to the attention of the public. Due largely to the socially responsible edict that they so outwardly promoted, their "no-nonsense", "real" image was, in fact, noticeably publicized through the mainstream news press. The number of references regarding their company appearing not only in the business sections of national newspapers, but in the interest & lifestyle sections, in the quirky news bites delivered by the Associated Press or UPI, and even on the front page, far surpassed references to other businesses less willing to flaunt their eccentricities. In a response to an attempt by the Pillsbury Corporation, makers of Häagen Dazs ice-cream, the top-selling national super-premium brand, to corner the market by not offering their brand to those distributors who were also carrying Ben & Jerry’s brand, Ben & Jerry’s used a massive public image campaign which was the "critical factor in bringing Pillsbury to the negotiating table. They had spent millions of marketing dollars creating a positive public image for their corporate emblem [the Pillsbury Doughboy], which we were publicly trashing at every possible turn. At the same time, they had unwittingly handed us a public-relations bonanza that had created brand awareness for our ice cream far in excess of anything we could have generated with paid advertising" (Lager, 1994: 119-120).


Given this press response (see bibliography), the consumer culture of the 1980’s gobbled up the anti-corporate, "real", do-good image of Ben & Jerry’s and idolized the company as a model of business for the future. Ritzer notes that "Patricia Aburdene, coauthor with John Naisbitt, of Megatrends 2000, sees Ben & Jerry’s as ‘most certainly…the new model of the corporate form that we will see created in the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century’ "(1993: 176).


In the same way that McDonald’s became an icon of pure Americana, so is Ben & Jerry’s becoming a similar icon of the new, "socially responsible" sector of American business. Journalist Jon Entine notes that "socially responsible business has only become fashionable in the last 15 years, spurred by environmental concerns and the cultural impact of aging baby boomers. Green marketing is sizzling. More than one third of consumer dollars are so-called ‘green dollars’ - $100-plus billion a year. For many companies, even those run by well-meaning executives, ‘responsible business’ is little more than a synonym for ‘cause-related marketing’, or trading on the idealism of consumers. Affluent baby boomers no longer try to change the world so much as "Shop for a Better World", the title of a popular ‘green’ consumer buying guide" (1995a).


The question remains: does the image of Ben & Jerry’s match the reality of their actions? The answer is, indubitably, not entirely. Even Lager admits this. Regarding the five-to-one ratio policy, he writes that "had we adhered to the policy as written in the prospectus, it might not have had much of an impact in the company. Over time, though, fueled by quotes in the media and at all-staff meetings, it took on a life of its own…" (1994: 131). The idealized public conception was infringing now upon the "life" of the company. Concomitant with the growth in rationalization that was changing the values of Ben & Jerry’s was the contrariety in values that came with the high praise the company received from the public and the press. These quotes reaffirm such changes:


While the company was receiving increasing notoriety and acclaim outside the company for its progressive stands and two-part bottom line, [Ben] wasn’t receiving strong support or reinforcement internally for those same ideas…By the end of 1988 we had taken our first tentative steps at actualizing the company’s mission. Where we had failed, however, was in crafting and carrying out a strategy to help the organization comprehend and understand what the mission statement in general, and the social component in particular, was all about. The disparity between reality and the perception of the outside world regarding what it was like to work for the company had been raised at the ‘freezer door’ all-staff meeting back in October of 1987. I began to refer privately to Jerry’s motto [If it’s not fun, why do it?] as one of the ‘three great lies.’ Allan Kaufman [a manager], noting how hard everyone was working, jokingly called the company ‘a sweatshop in a pastoral setting’ (Lager, 1994: 178, 208).


The discrepancy between the public image, which was sculpted by Cohen and Greenfield from the very start of the organization based upon their own idealism, and the current reality of the company’s operations clearly had further negative repercussions on the "life" of Ben & Jerry’s.


The effect of this discrepancy can be brought even further into question through an examination of the discoveries that Entine has made regarding their business practices. He discusses in detail two incidents that details his information in a forthcoming article for Business Ethics. The first, what he calls "swinegate", has to do with the environmentally and socially benevolent policy established by Ben & Jerry’s to give the water left over after the machinery was hosed down (it was essentially a diluted ice-cream) to local farmers to use as pig slop. "Eventually our crew was doing such a good job of sucking up the ice cream that we were generating more pig slop than we knew what to do with. The ice-cream-eating pigs turned into a huge media event when a reporter came across the contract we had signed with the farmer in a file at the state environmental office" (Lager, 1994: 147). While this seems like a thoughtful policy, Lager has not finished the story for us. Entine pursues this task:


Benevolence soon turned into disaster. Piglets that happily slurped Ben & Jerry’s Homemade sugar water never made it to 600-pound adulthood, suddenly expiring at 200 pounds, victims of oddly human-like arteriosclerosis. It was a minor catastrophe, the kind of reckless idealism that everyone would forgive, but Ben & Jerry’s chose to hide the mess. A reference to the project was suddenly deleted from the company’s annual report; no one was allowed to talk about the story, even to its social auditor…The sloppiness, and eventually the arrogance, that marked ‘swinegate’ is as much a trademark of Ben & Jerry’s - and the socially responsible business movement in general - as its well-publicized social campaigns. It leads to far more significant disasters, such as the ill-conceived ‘rainforest harvest’ which has caused so much unintended disruption in Brazil (1995a).


In the spring of 1990, the company rolled out its newest flavor, Rainforest Crunch, "the pint flavor made with the Brazil- and cashew-nut brittle from Ben’s new venture, Community Products, Inc. The timing of the product couldn’t have been better; it was released just in time for the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day, when the country’s environmental consciousness was at a peak. Instead of using the standard container for the flavor, a rainforest-themed package was designed that told customers how they could support the efforts of those who were working to stop world-wide deforestation" (Lager, 1994: 217). Again, however, this is only half of the story. According to Entine,


Cohen was sincerely convinced that capitalism-on-the-Amazon offered indigenous cultures an alternative to mining and clear cutting. According to the label on his ice cream, ‘money from these nuts helps to show that rainforests are more profitable when cultivated for traditional harvest than when their trees are cut and burned for short-term gain’. The anticipated source for the nuts - the Xapuri cooperative of white, former Portuguese rubber tappers - never produced the necessary quality or quantity. To meet exploding demand, Ben & Jerry’s turned to the commercial markets supplied by some of the most notorious, anti-labor agribusinesses in Latin America, including the Mutran family, convicted of killing labor organizers. Over the years, Ben & Jerry’s has purchased more than 95 percent of the nuts for Rainforest Crunch from these suppliers.


The story gets worse. Larger commercial interests elbowed out native suppliers in Brazil and Bolivia and flooded the market. Nut prices, already soft, plummeted, cutting the income of native tribes who did harvest the nuts. To make up for the shortfall, Indians have been selling off more land rights (1995a).


This "rainforest fiasco", as anthropologists have come to call it, exemplifies the naiveté that Cohen and company exhibited in rushing forth into this noble social project. "Ben Cohen launched the harvest with almost no input from Amazon experts, almost no support from long-time Amazon rights groups and no knowledge of the effects that his ‘good will’ gesture would have on third world markets", says Entine (1995b). "The ‘fiasco’ is now a case study, raised recently at a UN conference." Furthermore, it emphasizes the negative effects that the growth ethic can have upon not only our own society, but upon those societies that attempt to adopt such an ethic. "The influx of cash [from rainforest harvests] has created inequities, rivalries, and an appetite for western goods [among indigenous cultures] while reducing the attention paid to the real issue: land ownership. Quoting Indian Unity [one of the oldest Indian newspapers in the Americas]: ‘The rainforest harvest [weakens] campaigns in support of our struggles for our rights. People think that by consuming some product they are guaranteeing our protection. Our communities’ independence they’ll own and operate’ " (Myers, 1995).


Such incidents highlight the difficulties that Ben & Jerry’s and other socially responsible businesses have in integrating their progressive ideas with the mainstream corporate culture. While the intent of the rainforest harvest was to provide a safe haven for indigenous cultures from rationalization, the effect was almost entirely the opposite. Such is the convoluted nature of contemporary corporate capitalism and its ability to turn alternative ethical prospects to its own ends.


Next Section - Conclusion: Can Capitalism Be Caring?

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