Commercializing Juneteenth

The longstanding celebration that become a national holiday last year is being exploited for profit!

NPR’s Jonathan Franklin says “Companies are selling Juneteenth branded products. Here’s why that’s a big problem.”

From store-branded Juneteenth ice cream to Juneteenth-themed paper plates and party supplies, to even selling a Juneteenth watermelon salad, many large companies and brands are facing backlash for their efforts to commemorate the federal holiday signed into law last year.

Following its negative reaction on social media, Walmart pulled its special edition flavor of ice cream commemorating Juneteenth from shelves, with many critics calling out the retailer for capitalizing on the holiday for profit.

“There were several missteps with this. When you collectively look at all these missteps — the branding, the marketing, the visual rhetoric — you understand that there weren’t Black creatives in the room that had a voice at the table,” Christina Ferraz, founder and head consultant of marketing agency Thirty6five, told NPR.

Last month, the giant retailer apologized for selling its “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream” under its Great Value brand.

“Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence. However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize,” the company said in its statement to NPR.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis apologized and removed its Juneteenth-themed watermelon salad from its food court menu ahead of its Juneteenth Jamboree celebration.

“As a museum, we apologize and acknowledge the negative impact that stereotypes have on Black communities. The salad has been removed from the menu,” the museum said in its statement. “We are currently reviewing how we may best convey these stories and traditions during this year’s Juneteenth celebration as well as making changes around how future food selections are made by our food service provider.”

But while companies are working continuously to remove their Juneteenth items off shelves, experts argue that companies who are selling and promoting Juneteenth-branded products are tone-deaf — claiming they are only profiting off Black suffering.

“When a corporation comes in, uses that further marketing march and then capitalizes off it and sells it, what we’re seeing is modern-day colonialism,” said Ferraz.

Experts say the true meaning of the commemoration can easily be lost through consumerism and widespread consumption.

Well, no shit. Welcome to America.

Look, rather obviously, rolling out watermelon and fried chicken themes to commemorate milestones in Black history is a blunder of epic proportions. I’m befuddled that people running a major museum didn’t understand that.

But commercializing celebrations of events with deep meaning for people is a time-honored tradition.

Easter, the holiest day of the year for most American Christians, marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ after he died on the cross, is marked by weeks of sales of everything from chocolate bunnies to fashion accessories to kitchen appliances.

Memorial Day, on which we honor the Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice in our nation’s wars, is marked by a three-day extravaganza of markdowns on everything from mattresses to hardware to personal electronics.

And that’s to say nothing of Christmas, on which there has been a longstanding war. It’s quite possible your local mall is already decorated for it. Almost certainly, toy companies are already marketing for it.

Rather obviously, our nation has a long history of maltreatment of its Black population. Our original sin of slavery lasted some 250 years and that was followed by roughly another century of Jim Crow. Things have improved markedly in the last half-century but the fact that a Black Lives Matter movement exists would seem a decent indicator we have a way to go. So, I get the notion that these events are somehow more sacred. But that’s just not how the world works.

To the extent there are Juneteenth celebrations, people will want to buy commemorative t-shirts, party favors, yard signs, and the like. Why not a limited-time-only ice cream flavor? Presumably, Black-owned businesses would have a marketing advantage but, since Black people shop at Walmart, too, of course the retailer is going to try to make money off the celebration. It’s the American way.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence

    I think a bigger issue is going to be attempts to de-contextualize the holiday in order to make it more “white-friendly” until it’s basically just July 4th II

    3
  2. DK says:

    Yeah, I was disappointed to see the companies cave so quickly on this. When will they learn that Twitter is not real life? I want to see Juneteenth become a huge big thing. Commercialization — however distasteful — is a part of that. Bring on the Juneteenth ice cream, the cheap Juneteenth hats and cheesy Juneteenth tee shirts, the Juneteenth party accouterments. I see no problem with this.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @DK: I hadn’t thought of it from that angle but yes, a very good point.

    1
  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    The execs at these various companies shrug and think, “Well, fuck ’em then, what’s the next item on the agenda?” Roll forward five years and progressive Twitter will be bitching that there aren’t more Juneteenth celebrations. “It should be as big as July 4th!”

  5. Kathy says:

    Holidays are the time when working people have time to shop for non-essentials and big ticket items, even online.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    Walmart’s ad for Juneteenth ice cream would likely be the first time many people, who aren’t African-American, would have heard of Juneteenth. Having them ask, what is Juneteenth, is a small step to a more tolerant society.

    Twitter isn’t real life and the continually offended aren’t society.

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  7. Jc says:

    How about give away the ice cream for free to commemorate juneteenth? Or free to all african americans. Many businesses acknowledge our veterans with free food on Veterans Day.

  8. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Would Juneteenth ice cream taste like bitter tears… or would the container just be empty?

    1
  9. JKB says:

    Walmart got driven by a Twitter storm over a joke. Roy Woods responds to his accidental start of a movement.

  10. MarkedMan says:

    Reading between the lines, the watermelon salad thing was bogus, just the purity police looking to be offended. A vendor regularly supplied a high end feta and watermelon salad (a delicious combo, by the way) and labeled it with a Juneteenth labelas part of the overall promotion, not even thinking about the watermelon part of it. People who are eternally looking to be offended, well, decided to be offended. (I am sure that they are “oh so tire at how they have to educate these people”.)

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Despite my comments above about the people who are offended as a hobby or as a profession but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with your sentiments about Junetenth. To me, it is a holiday that should be up there with Independence Day, probably even higher. It is the holiday that most celebrates the American Ideal. It’s not about winning a war or celebrating an individual, but rather about doing what was right, with making the nation more resemble the ideals of our founding. And correcting the most corrosive and evil thing institutionalized in our goverments.

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  12. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    A watermelon, feta, and black olive is Greek in origin. And yes, it is fantastic. I almost ate a whole huge bowl of it once.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    And that’s to say nothing of Christmas, on which there has been a longstanding war. It’s quite possible your local mall is already decorated for it.

    Meh… Not so much. But our local mall is only still standing because it has the only remaining JC Penney’s store for 3 or 400 miles (and I don’t know how the chain keeps it open either) and the other anchor tenant is the county public library. Otherwise it’s about 70% vacant and most of the tenants are places like a drop in daycare center and the headquarters of the Kelso Model Train Society (which I’d really like to visit, but it’s never open).

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: People are a*holes and so bigots can make watermelon = insult to African Americans, but in reality watermelon is beloved everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I’ve been on 6 different continents in dozens of different countries and I’ve had watermelon in every one of them, and it was always considered a delicious treat to set out for guests. Don’t let the a*holes ruin it for everyone!

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  15. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Well, I’m not going to stop eating it. Plus, it’s very good for you.

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  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Wasn’t at all offended, either by you or the idea of commercializing Juneteenth, which after all, as @james implied, is the American way.

    With regard to the perpetually offended, I guess that if your life is so small and miserable that you need to search the news feeds to find something to be outraged about, then I’d like to summon up some pity, but all I can find is small violins. There is a faction on both the left and right has made it their mission to prime the outrage machine, what they end up doing is making life miserable for the rest of us.

    There is enough in life that is truly outrageous, 17 dead children and 2 dead teachers in Uvalde, the Russians leveling city after Ukraine city, that allegedly liberal enclaves, can’t provide affordable housing for not just their poor, but for the lower middle class.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: Even as a kid I was never all that fond of watermelon. Give me a ripened to perfection cantaloupe or honeydew any day.

    Diffrent strokes and all that.

  18. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan: Sometimes really offensive things happen by accident, but you do not market watermelon as a Black thing without bringing up a whole lot of racist imagery.

    That’s not purity police looking to be offended, that’s just a whole lot of racist imagery.

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Would Juneteenth ice cream taste like bitter tears… or would the container just be empty?

    Only if you’re a slaveholder. Juneteenth is a joyous celebration of Black people gaining freedom, not a mournful dwelling on slavery.

    Plus, we all know the ice cream should be butter pecan.

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  19. Gustopher says:

    @DK: I’m disappointed that history didn’t make the dates line up better, but we have three holidays that tell a story:

    The Fourth of July, when bold, aspirational values of equality were put onto paper, which we would forever struggle to uphold.

    Juneteenth, when Blacks we’re finally liberated from slavery, a huge step forward towards achieving those aspirational values.

    MLK Day, which roughly celebrates the fall of Jim Crow, the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and legal equality.

    It’s a pretty amazing story of a nation attempting the achieve the vision of the Founding Fathers, with lots of other steps on the way (woman’s suffrage, Irish people declared white, etc). It is very simplified, but it’s a story of America that even the most dour America-hating liberal Democrats* should be proud of. It’s patriotic in the best way.

    I really wish they fell on the calendar in that order, so throughout the year we tell that story.

    And then we could find some other day to recognize those living and working today to bring that story to its conclusion where we actually achieve equality for all.

    ——
    *: we focus on how much further we have to go to achieve a culture with equality and equity. We should take some time to celebrate how far we have come.

    We complain about Washington and Jefferson having slaves, but we should celebrate the vision of the better future for America that they had… even if it’s bullshit and Jefferson didn’t consider Black men to be men in “all men are created equal” and certainly didn’t care about women, natives, etc.