Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream controversy forces retail giant to review its assortment

Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream controversy forces retail giant to review its assortment

Published May 24, 2022
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Walmart’s attempt to celebrate Juneteenth with a special edition private-label ice cream has created a massive social media backlash, with the retailer facing criticism for trivializing and cashing in on an event that commemorates Black people’s emancipation from centuries of slavery.

Bridge—a group formed earlier this year by marketing and diversity, equity and inclusion executives from Unilever, Discover Financial, NBC Universal and WPP’s GroupM among others—issued an open letter to Walmart executives on May 23 calling on the retailer to remove the product from its shelves.

At issue is Great Value Celebration Edition Juneteenth ice cream, which on its label includes an exhortation to “share and celebrate African-American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.” Critics on social media portrayed it as a tone-deaf effort by a giant retailer controlled by a wealthy white family to cash in on the June 19th holiday with an ice cream flavor almost identical to one sold by a Black-owned brand.

Juneteenth, Bridge’s letter said, “is a day of commemoration. A serious day. It is neither fun nor frivolous but rather a memory of a very dark and devastating period in American history. Would you launch an ice cream called January 27? The day the world remembers the Holocaust? Or April 7, the day that memorializes the genocide in Rwanda. Of course not. So why Juneteenth?”

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“We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate,” Walmart announced in a statement. The “Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence,” the retailer stated. “However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers, and we sincerely apologize.”

On social media, the idea of Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream quickly hit a nerve.

Electris Jones, the North Carolina woman who posted the original image on social media, picked up the ice cream at a store near her and took a picture of it, because, she said in an interview, she found it to be “pandering.” She posted it on Facebook late Saturday, and by Sunday, the picture had been shared more than 4,000 times and was amplified on Twitter, where it was shared by comedians and at least one member of Congress, she said.

Bridge, in its letter, said the ice cream likely came from a product development team that didn’t have “diversity voices” who had adequate say. “If Walmart had just one ‘listened to’ Black voice – a voice that is not overpowered by the majority – involved in the development of this unfortunate product, we don’t believe this ice cream would have ever made it to the shelves,” the letter said.

Bridge also characterized the ice cream as cultural appropriation, adding that the use of images of sports and music on the packaging “extends the stereotypes of Black people and misrepresents the seriousness of the day.” The seeming “high five” gesture on the front of the package also diminishes the seriousness of the holiday, the letter said.

Bridge, like many social media commentators, also took issue with a prominent “TM” symbol on the word “Juneteenth,” by which Walmart appears to claim ownership of the word. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office actually has no record of Walmart owning or applying for a Juneteenth trademark, though a Pennsylvania man does have a recent application for a “Juneteenth Joy” trademark covering ice cream. (Great Value is a private label brand sold by Walmart.)Look back: How brands should approach Juneteenth (from 2021)

Actor, writer and comedian Kevin Fredericks posted a video taking issue not just with the ice cream but also the full range of Walmart Juneteenth offerings, including wine, paper plates and t-shirts.

Walmart selling Juneteenth ice cream?! pic.twitter.com/w7omQGdwOV

Some people accused Great Value of knocking off a similar red velvet and cheesecake ice cream flavor from Black-owned, Cincinnati-based brand Creamalicious that is sold—among other places—at Walmart. Others called out Walmart for cultural appropriation.

In this article:

Jack Neff, editor at large, covers household and personal-care marketers, Walmart and market research. He’s based near Cincinnati and has previously written for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloomberg, and trade publications covering the food, woodworking and graphic design industries and worked in corporate communications for the E.W. Scripps Co.