The ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s has become embroiled in a row with Boris Johnson’s government over its handling of the migrant crisis in the English Channel, in a new sign of how companies are using political controversy to generate publicity.
In a bust-up probably convenient to both sides, the company called on home secretary Priti Patel to show more “humanity” in dealing with the marked increase in migrants attempting to cross the Channel as people smugglers take advantage of calm seas and warm summer weather.
One Home Office official retaliated by branding Ben & Jerry’s a purveyor of “overpriced junk food”, insisting that Ms Patel’s tough stance in dealing with migrants crossing from France would not be affected by criticism from an ice-cream maker’s social media team.
Meanwhile, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly tweeted: “Can I have a large scoop of statistically inaccurate virtue signalling with my grossly overpriced ice cream, please?”
Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever 20 years ago after more than two decades of being outspoken on social issues and has retained this campaigning streak, sometimes leading the way for its parent.
In June it announced it would boycott Facebook in the US because of racism and hate speech, paving the way for Unilever days later to become one of the first multinationals to pull its advertising from the platform.
Ben & Jerry’s has also been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling in June for an end to a “culture of white supremacy”.
The brand’s spat with the home secretary contrasts with a warm government response to Unilever when the consumer goods group announced, also in June, that it would seek to combine its UK and Dutch arms into a single London-based legal structure.
Under an agreement made at the time of its acquisition, Ben & Jerry’s has an independent board of directors in addition to Unilever’s, which it says is “not a governing body in the conventional sense, but a (very!) independent B.O.D. that’s empowered to protect and defend Ben & Jerry’s brand equity and integrity”.
In February, Unilever said it would stop marketing ice-cream such as Ben & Jerry’s to children in the light of the obesity crisis.
The Black Lives Matter movement also drew other food and drinks brands into the political arena, including Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips.
When Yorkshire Tea was praised by a Twitter user for initially not publicly supporting the movement, it said it had been taking time to educate itself and responded: “Please don’t buy our tea again”.
This was not the first time that Yorkshire Tea has been dragged into a political Twitter storm: after chancellor Rishi Sunak was pictured drinking its tea, the company was forced to appeal for calm among angry Twitter followers calling for a boycott.
In the US, sportswear manufacturer Nike sparked a backlash from some customers after it used American football star Colin Kaepernick in a flagship advertising campaign. The quarterback has become synonymous with the campaign against racial injustice in America after he knelt during the US national anthem in a protest against police brutality.
Airbnb, meanwhile, launched an ad campaign titled “We Accept” that featured different nationalities amid plans in the US to close borders to refugees.
Other brands have also become known for their campaigning stances, including retailers such as The Body Shop and Lush, with the latter attracting criticism for a campaign highlighting the conduct of undercover police officers.
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