It always comes off as a bit unseemly when a corporation announces a music sponsorship. Not to even broach the Britney Spears and 'NSyncs of the world, bred and conditioned to be little more than glossy shills, not least for their own pestilent recordings â€” but rock 'n' roll has always retained, deserved or not, an air of legitimacy grounded in the genre's early countercultural roots. As such, the rock band's role as a â€œpromotional platformâ€? for product X or company Y seems to be a heretical mismatch of social entities, the poet, as it were, writing copy for the suits.
Ben & Jerry's Homemade has pulled it off over the years, ascribable to the company's independent, boutique image as anchored to its earthy, post-hippie founders. Never heavy advertisers, for years Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield made their brand stand out by way of imaginative combinations of ingredients, goofy flavor names occasionally linked to their favorite musicians (such as Jerry Garcia and Phish) and a raft of eco-conscious associations. These days the brand belongs to Unilever, but its most recent cause-related tie-in with the Dave Matthews Band seems to indicate the consumer products giant is willing to continue the brand's strategy apace, at a time when its message might be more salient than ever.
Matthews has put his own green-minded imprimatur on the new flavor, One Sweet Whirled, a play off his song â€œOne Sweet World,â€? around which Ben & Jerry's has crafted a grassroots promo to encourage the reduction of greenhouse gases. The company has hit the road for the band's tours, holding One Sweet World Interactive Events at concert venues, offering tastes of the new product and giving info on how to help impede global warming, elements paralleled on the Web site onesweetwhirled.com. Ben & Jerry's retail shops will also get involved by setting up â€œaction stationsâ€? to encourage participation. Portions of sales will go to SaveOurEnvironment.org, a consortium of green non-government organizations (NGOs), such as the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Federation.
One Sweet Whirled offers Ben & Jerry's typical sweet indulgence â€” caramel and coffee ice creams swirled together with marshmallow, caramel and coffee-fudge chips â€” that has made it the fatty treat of choice of young adults and Baby Boomers. The Matthews link skews a bit younger and more male than the brand's stereotypical Sex and the City urbanite treating herself after a bad day at work. But as the company has pointed out, the band's general 18- to 24-year-old following is confluent with the heaviest buyers in the super-premium ice cream category.
The grander mission would seem a bit more problematic â€” can an ice cream brand help put its cause on the map of public consciousness among a savvy adult demographic inundated with seemingly more pressing and horrific news for nearly a year? And can a progressive/left cause find receptive ears despite a public agenda that has basically been monopolized by the right wing, which has long dismissed global warming as the confabulation of hippie-dippy crackpots?
Although Ben & Jerry's spokespeople did not return repeated phone calls, Cohen himself has made it clear that it is incumbent upon those with the budget for mass communications to take the point on such matters. â€œI think that people tend to relegate [the issue of] the environment to â€˜environmentalistsâ€™ or nonprofit organizations,â€? he told CNNfn in April. â€œAnd the reality is we're never going to solve the problem until we take on that cause in the mainstream.â€?
Given all the news that Americans have been bombarded with since Sept. 11, we might expect environmental concerns to be low on their list. Indeed, since the Gallup Organization started measuring American consciousness of global warming, it has tracked those worried â€œa great dealâ€? about it from a low of 24 percent in 1997 to a high of 40 percent in 2000. That index fell to 29 percent this year, as of an early March sampling of 1,006 adults.
Worse, the outpouring of charitable donations after Sept. 11 and the recessionary settling thereafter have done little to boost NGOs. Forty-four percent of U.S. charities saw declines in fundraising in the months following the terrorist attacks, compared with the same period the previous year, according to the Association of Fundraising Professions. In particular, most environmental organizations saw donations decline in October 2001 versus October 2000.
Whether people make the connection or not, Sept. 11 has coalesced a sort of holism among many Americans, says Mona Doyle, president of the Consumer Network, a Philadelphia firm that conducts polling of consumers. The violent threats, and our impotence in the face of them, have given rise to broader scrutiny of the general welfare and â€œwhat we can do,â€? says Doyle. â€œIt's a consciousness of our frailty,â€? she says. â€œBut that's higher up than it was, and I think that's a very efficient response, that given the chance to do what's right, let's do it.â€?
A cursory analysis of the concentration of Ben & Jerry's core consumer could also favor the company. The super-premium category accounts for only about 11 percent of approximately $20 million in sales in the frozen treat sector, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. A full 80 percent of Americans purchase their ice cream in half-gallon containers, versus Ben & Jerry's grab-and-go pints. Those sell more liberally in urban areas, and a cosmopolitan consumer is more likely amenable to the eco-conscious pitch.
For all Bush's whopping approval ratings, Ben & Jerry's is broaching a subject on which Americans have found the administration sorely lacking. Conservatives' near-hysterical defense of gas-guzzling SUVs, Bush's unilateral abrogation of the Kyoto protocols, the administration's use of the turmoil in the Middle East to justify its fully anticipated attempt to open the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling â€” these are the highlights of the White House's business-friendly, eco-indifferent policy, and they're not sitting well. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans favor energy conservation, 72 percent support tougher auto emissions standards (counter to administration policy), 83 percent favor higher standards for corporate pollution and 82 percent want tougher enforcement of environmental laws.
Ben & Jerry's has used the promotion to reaffirm its own holism, stating in its materials that the company will evaluate its refrigeration systems to reduce CO2 emissions, look at alternative energy options and encourage its employees to undertake the greenhouse gas-reduction steps that it recommends to consumers. Whether one relatively minor unit of one giant corporation can re-engage a critical mass of consumers on the green agenda is hardly a drop kick. But in the grand scheme, the Unilever unit remains one of those rare companies willing to maintain the personality of its brand as the very operating policy of its business.
Its action, at a time when attention spans are short and anxieties high, and when the corporate agenda appears so wildly out of touch with the vast majority of Americans, could speak louder to consumers than another waving flag.