Virtuous or virtue signalling – was Ben & Jerry's right to attack the Government on Channel crossings?

PR professionals have given a mixed response to the high-profile attack by Unilever ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's on the Government's policy towards recent Channel crossings by migrants and refugees in small boats – welcoming the message, but warning about accusations of virtue signalling.

UK Border Force officials help migrants intercepted while travelling from France to Dover (Photo: Getty Images)
UK Border Force officials help migrants intercepted while travelling from France to Dover (Photo: Getty Images)

Yesterday the Government said it may look to change asylum laws to deter the crossings. Analysis by PA Media has suggested that more than 4,000 successful attempts to get across the Channel in a boat have taken place so far this year.

Ben & Jerry's criticised Home Secretary Priti Patel in a series of tweets from its UK account, urging a more compassionate approach.

The move met with strong reactions, both for and against. Many people praised the ice cream brand for speaking out:

High-profile critics included Government minister James Cleverly:

Ben & Jerry's was also accused of hypocrisy due to the conduct of its owner, the consumer goods multinational Unilever:

Ben & Jerry's is known for speaking out on political issues and directly criticising individual politicians, authorities and policies. Notable examples include its campaign against President Trump's plan for a wall on the US-Mexico border, and its condemnation of "the continued violent response by police against protestors" in recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

A snap Twitter poll by PRWeek this morning found around two-thirds of respondents opposed the brand's action towards Patel on Channel crossings. The poll was roughly neck-and-neck until it was retweeted by Conservative MP Ben Bradley.

A number of PR professionals expressed strong support for Ben & Jerry's, saying the brand was right to speak out this way.

Aggie Holland, brand comms executive at Porter Novelli London, said: “There are always risks with bold brand responses to stories on the news agenda, with an inherent phobia of being accused of either virtue signalling, or being on the wrong side of history. Since its origins Ben & Jerry’s has led the charge with legitimate purpose work at grassroots level and promoting ethical, conscious consumption.

"According to our ongoing tracking during COVID-19, 72 per cent of UK adults agree that to truly be a purpose-driven company, a brand must be willing to take risks to address social justice issues, and these proactive comments towards Ms Patel indicate that Ben & Jerry’s will continue to not shy away from difficult, important conversations and to always show compassion. And it should be celebrated for that.”

'I applaud Ben & Jerry's'

Betty Nwosu, freelance PR consultant, said: "Ben & Jerry's taking on Priti Patel is absolutely ballsy. I revel at moments like this, an unexpected ding-dong on a sticky summer’s day. 

"Undoubtedly, 2020 has propelled brand purpose exponentially, even Sports Direct got in on the action. It is imperative that brands have a purpose framework that governs their position, and these values are visible in every aspect of their business. 

"I applaud Ben & Jerry's on this, and its decision to halt advertising on some social-media platforms, demanding that they do better to stop hateful misinformation. This fits in with the brand’s heritage, its strong advocacy on social injustice that dates back to its founders, Ben & Jerry. Holding governments accountable is what it does; its campaign in 2017 on gay marriage rights in Australia is still cited as purpose goals by many. Not staying silent on this issue further cements its authenticity on social injustice. 

"That said, it is important to make clear that very few brands can hold this position, as demonstrated with the numerous fallouts witnessed as brands tried to leverage the Black Lives Matter movement.

"On purpose, focus delivers results, and social injustice has been Ben & Jerry's focus from inception. And on the day like today, I'll be having a scoop!"

Sarah Warman, VP brand strategy at BrewDog – another brand known for speaking out on political issues – tweeted:

H+K Strategies managing director of specialist services Tanya Joseph also welcomed the move.

“This is a brilliant example of a brand putting purpose at the heart of what it does. Ben & Jerry’s has a long history of activism, particularly when it comes to human rights," she said. "The response from the Government is entirely predictable and has just vindicated Ben & Jerry's' position. While it won’t change the minds of those who would like to see us turn the refugees back, it reminds everyone else of Ben & Jerry's' values.”

Virtue signalling?

Other comms professionals urged some caution. Sam Narr, chief executive and founder of Kibbo Kift Agency, said: "I commend Ben & Jerry’s for using its large platform and reach to bring these urgent issues to light, but I do have mixed feelings in general.

"While it actively positions itself as socially conscious and is absolutely correct on the refugee crisis – showing credible sources in their Twitter thread – it's also in the business of mass-produced milk and is under the conglomerate of Unilever. Its contribution to deforestation (through soy production for cattle feed) and animal cruelty while selling a product that is high in fat and sugar is sizeable.

"As a vegan, Slow Food member and agency owner that deals exclusively with ethical and responsible start-up brands, I see its approach as virtue signalling. The real question is how can brands that have benefitted so richly from global consumerism adjust their corporate structures, products and communications strategies in line with the injustices in the world in a genuine way? They should put their ice cream where their mouth is – a large donation to Refugee Action should follow."

Tom Hashemi, director at agency Cast From Clay, said: "Ben and Jerry's' intervention is aligned with its social mission and it is certainly not the first time it has applied its brand values to the issue of migrants. So, from a brand point of view, this is a win.

"From the layman point of view though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about an ice cream brand taking the issue of migration policy straight to the media. For this to have substance, is it also applying pressure on politicians behind closed doors?

"The jury’s out – we’ll see how its customers respond, and whether it has any impact on the migration debate at a societal level."

Corporate comms advisor Paddy Blewer also had concerns. He told PRWeek: "I happen to agree entirely with the spirit of Ben & Jerry's tweets. I'm on their side intellectually – my political sympathies are with what they said."

Despite this, Blewer said that, as someone who has advised on issues related to conflict zones, displaced people and refugees, "I always want anyone who is talking about issues such as this, which are so complicated in terms of international law, to get it straight that they have the neccessary knowledge and understanding to commentate.

"I don't know if they do or they don't; I dont know if the person writing those tweets has a PHD in international law. If they do, fantastic. I would feel uncomfortable writing those tweets because I don't feel I have the neccessary understanding of the issues to ensure I have the correct interpretation."

James Gilheany, head of comms at fibre network infrastructure group CityFibre, was among those who strongly opposed Ben & Jerry's approach:

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in