BY STEWART SLATER
Scrolling mindlessly through Facebook the other day (and is there any other way to consume Mr Zuckerberg’s digital soma?), my diet of friends’ holiday snaps, showing bare skin in increasing degrees of pinkness, was interrupted by a video. Not, as I might expect, of munchkins frolicking on the beach, but about the government’s Rwanda plan. It was, I was informed, a “one-way ticket to distress”. Fortunately, together we could stop this. All that was necessary was to “Take action now”.
Fair enough. I might not be the ideal target for such an advert, but then again I live in London and am not an Argentinian general, and Facebook still thinks I want weather updates from the Falkland Islands’ Police. That the company is willing to take money from a charity to show an advert to someone who is at best (at the risk of appearing heartless) indifferent to the issue is either a sign of corporate greed, or reassuring proof that artificial intelligence is far less advanced than we fear.
But then I looked again. The ad was sponsored by Ben & Jerry’s. I was being lectured by ice cream.
Being right-on has long been part of the company’s schtick. Look at any fashionable cause of the past 40 years, and you can be reasonably certain that they have promoted it. Sometimes that has worked, other times – such as its recent comments on Ukraine – it hasn’t, but Ben and Jerry’s want you to know that their ice cream is on “the right side of history”. If your ideology is so totalising that you only wish to deal with people who share your political preferences, then at least you know where they stand.
Those of us, by contrast, of a more tolerant disposition can remember Voltaire’s argument that the genius of capitalism was that, by focusing on individual self-interest, it allowed those of differing views to interact profitably. On the London Stock Exchange, he wrote:
If you do not agree with their view, you can still give them money and they will still give you ice cream. You will be fatter, they will be richer and everyone will be happy.
Ben & Jerry’s are, of course, at perfect liberty to use their shareholders’ money to promote whatever cause they wish, as long as the shareholders agree. If they don’t, then they can use their votes to remove the management and install a new one.
To be fair to the company, the promotion is reasonably subtle. It does not contain their name although even the most cynical ad-man might draw a line at a campaign along the lines of “There’s a tragedy happening just miles from you. Have some ice cream.” The only way you would know it was from them was via the heading Facebook gave it, or by clicking on the link which takes you to a page with the company’s well known font and puns – “What exactly is the Rwanda Plan, and why is it so fudged up?”
What is it about the issue that has made the company go to the effort of setting up a website and running an ad campaign on social media? Part of the problem seems to be the risk of family separation – “imagine how you’d feel if your sister or father was suddenly forced onto a plane.” But not seeing your relatives is a far from unknown phenomenon in wider society, and “Fathers 4 Justice Fudge” has yet to appear at my local supermarket. It appears that for Ben and Jerry’s, all family separations are equal, but some are more equal than others.
The Rwanda policy is one of those issues which divides the country quite neatly. According to JL Partners, 71% of Conservatives support it while 66% of Labour voters oppose it. 57% of Brexiteers are for it, 65% of Remainers are against it. Reactions to it are an almost perfect encapsulation of Britain’s tribal divide. By showing its concern, the company is making clear that it shares the values of one particular group. Whether or not this is a good idea for the sales numbers – for every bleeding heart leftie who buys an extra tub, there may be a gammon-faced Daily Mail reader who swears off it for life – it does have one major advantage.
For, let us be honest, ice cream is not good for us. A single serving (and which of us actually pays any attention to the portion size?) of Birthday Cake Ice Cream contains 31% of your recommended sugar intake and 41% of the saturated fat you should consume. If you were the sort of caring person who wants only the best for people, the sort of person moved by the plight of asylum seekers perhaps, would you want people to eat large amounts of ice cream, given the well known health issues caused by fat and sugar? Or would you perhaps think that companies which sell junk food were getting rich by exploiting their customers’ health in a similar albeit less serious way to their peers in the tobacco industry?
The company may have been founded by a pair of well-meaning hippies, but since 2000, it has been owned by Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. Whatever values Unilever may espouse, a quick glance at its record suggests that it is an odd choice of bedfellow for the left of British politics. In 2001, it was caught dumping mercury waste in an Indian town. In 2014 it was criticised by Greenpeace for causing deforestation by using palm oil. In 2019, it was cited as one of the world’s top 10 plastic polluters, the same year as security forces it hired attacked protestors picketing one of its facilities with rubber bullets. There is also the small matter of the €104mn fine it received for price fixing.
A quick glance at these events shows a common theme. They mainly occurred in developing countries, exactly the sort of place which those on the left claim to care about. Yet, despite being owned by a group which “oppresses the Global South”, Ben and Jerry’s, by setting up a website and paying for some Facebook ads, still manage to be part of the good guys.
This myopia is not a uniquely British feature. American activists are more than willing to overlook companies’ links with China – you know, the big scary country which might be about to invade Taiwan and is conducting genocide against its Uighur minority – because they spend a few bucks declaring that Black Lives Matter or make the requisite noises about abortion in Republican states.
For all those on the right might harrumph about companies paying protection money to the woke mob, the situation is the exact opposite. By tossing out some crumbs of concern for fashionable issues of local import, they get carte blanche to carry on doing the types of things their ideological opponents claim to loathe. Like a street hustler, they focus attention where they want it to be rather than where it should be. As the old poker saying has it, if you don’t know who at the table is the sucker, it’s you.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.