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Juneteenth ice cream and paper plates: Companies keep getting holiday wrong

As corporations market Juneteenth, some leave Black-owned small businesses behind and risk alienating consumers, experts say

Juneteenth celebrations in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City on June 19, 2021. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)
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Before a new wave of civil rights demonstrations swept the country, before Congress made Juneteenth a federal holiday, Brenda Hampton was already in business.

She’s been selling Juneteenth flags on Etsy since 2019, convinced her neighbors and others would want mementos of the day commemorating the end of American slavery. She was right: Sales topped $30,000 that year.

But corporations and their marketers also have taken notice of Juneteenth — and Black business owners and others say they’re getting it wrong.

Juneteenth is a mash-up of “June 19,” the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were declared freed. It became a federal holiday last year, prompting concerns by some Black leaders that its historical significance would be co-opted by blowout sales on mattresses or patio furniture — much like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — or relegated to the novelty aisle at big-box stores.

Such concerns are not without foundation: Last month, Walmart rolled out, then swiftly apologized for, “Juneteenth ice cream,” after social media backlash. The retailer’s website offerings include Juneteenth paper plates, napkins and party supplies, but also a black tank top modeled by a White woman with the words “Because my ancestors weren’t free in 1976,” an apparent mistaken reference to American independence in 1776. It is out of stock.

The joy and history of Juneteenth

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis advertised a “Juneteenth watermelon salad” in its food court, then dropped it and issued an apology after intense blowback.

Other underrepresented groups have bristled at marketing missteps, including the “Pride Whopper” that Burger King in Australia unveiled for LGBTQ Pride Month; it featured hamburger buns with either two tops or two bottoms. Skyy vodka got mixed reviews for its commercial supporting LGBTQ nightlife called “Coming out (Again),” as did US Bank for advertising on its website “Pride Plans” (“to support you as you pursue financial freedom to live life on your own terms”).

Juneteenth, marketing experts say, presents tricky but predictable pitfalls for national brands: How do they serve consumers hoping to celebrate a culturally significant event without appearing mercenary?

“They’re trying to figure out what’s the best approach to doing that without getting into any kind of trouble,” said Earnest Perry, who studies cross-cultural communication at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “You don’t want to misappropriate a holiday that has significant meaning to Black Americans, especially Black Americans in the South, who grew up understanding what Juneteenth means and the significance of it.”

“We can laugh at these. These are cringeworthy fails on social media,” said Joshua DuBois, the chief executive of the market research platform Gauge. He held a webinar Wednesday for companies preparing for Juneteenth called “Don’t Be That Brand.” “But they also illustrate sort of a fundamental gap between far too many brands and the customers and communities that they want to serve.”

President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in states that seceded during the Civil War, but it was largely unenforceable, and many enslavers fled to Texas to continue the practice. On June 19, 1865, the Union army took control of Texas and outlawed slavery.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery, was ratified six months later, and on June 19, 1866, many formerly enslaved people began celebrating the date.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment on its apparent Juneteenth product missteps, but in a statement issued in May, the retailer said it would “remove items as appropriate” as it reviews its Juneteenth products.

“Juneteenth holiday marks a celebration of freedom and independence,” Walmart’s statement said. “However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.”

For years, Black families across the country, but most heavily in Texas and Louisiana, celebrated Juneteenth with family gatherings, events that have been marked with a tinge of sadness in recognition of years of oppression, said Pearl Walker, the president of the I Love Whitehaven Neighborhood and Business Association, which represents a predominantly Black section of Memphis.

She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew.

But since the holiday gained federal recognition, she said, residents have poured much more energy into the celebrations. Whitehaven moved its Black restaurant week from around Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January to the week before Juneteenth to take advantage of the summer weather and increased interest in the holiday.

In St. Louis, Brenda Hampton opened a dedicated Etsy shop, Black Girl Powerhouse, and a store at a local mall fueled by early sales of the Juneteenth flag. The businesses sell clothes and household decor designed by female — and mostly Black — entrepreneurs.

Juneteenth marks the start of Hampton’s busiest season. Sales tick up around 25 or 30 percent around the holiday, she said.

“People are all-in now,” Hampton said. “That’s a beautiful thing to me.”

But that demand, she said, also leaves smaller Black businesses like hers vulnerable. She can’t compete with Walmart or Amazon — which also carries an array of Juneteenth merchandise — or dollar stores on prices. Flags at Walmart sell for as low as $15.95 and on Amazon starting at $9. Hampton’s are priced at $19.99 on Etsy.

Juneteenth celebrates ‘a moment of indescribable joy’: Slavery’s end in Texas

Black restaurateurs in Memphis may receive sweeping support from consumers during Black restaurant week or while selling at local festivals, but much of that revenue, Walker said, is directed back to food suppliers with White owners. That defeats the momentum of some of the Whitehaven neighborhood group’s programming, which tries to keep money in the community.

“The money is going to be made,” Walker said. “People are going to do what we do. And we don’t have control over that. But we do have control over what we do with our money.”

And one-time promotions, like special ice cream or discounts, related to Juneteenth expose businesses’ unfamiliarity with the holiday and with their Black constituencies, experts say.

“I think about it and hope that brands and companies realize that these moments and these holidays mean so much more to the community than just beyond the day,” Candice Benbow, a theologian who studies Black feminism, said during the webinar. “We’ve been celebrating Juneteenth for years.”

Companies that have successfully marketed around the holiday, she said, are brands that have prioritized relationships with Black consumers for years and commemorate Juneteenth as a way to recognize their diverse clientele rather than hawking products.

Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, said Branden Harvey, the editor in chief of Good Good Good, a news site dedicated to “good news,” has recognized Juneteenth for years and used the day to highlight social justice causes.

“There’s tons of opportunities to understand Juneteenth,” said Walker. “From a creative standpoint, I know there’s just going to be more books, more things to view and read and watch.”

“I don’t think the Black community has a need for people to understand,” she added. “I think the Black community has a need for people to respect it and not exploit it and not make a mockery of it.”