A new ice cream jingle for a new era

Why Unilever’s Good Humor ice cream brand inserted itself into a historical discussion about the racist roots of an iconic jingle.

Good Humor used its heritage in ice cream trucks to weigh in on a racist jingle issue. (Pic: Getty Images.)

Since we are in the middle of the dog days of summer and I happen to have spent the past week at the beach, now seems as good a time as any to talk ice cream

And when you think of ice cream, your mind automatically associates it with the iconic jingle the ice cream trucks play all around the U.S. to announce themselves when they approach your street.

It’s an ear worm that really gets inside your head, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. I have certainly heard it several times this week on the Rockaway Beach shorefront.

But a new campaign by Unilever ice cream brand Good Humor fronted by RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan highlights the fact that the tune most associated with ice-cream trucks, "Turkey in the Straw," is problematic and has racist connotations.

Turkey in the Straw started out as a song about life on the farm, using the melody of the Irish ballad, “The Old Rose Tree.” But by the 1830s, derogatory lyrics emerged alongside minstrel show performers’ dismissive portrayals of Black Americans. By 1930, the nature of the lyrics had become egregiously racist and shocking, especially in the context of modern social mores.

This all prompted Good Humor to issue a statement condemning the jingle’s racist roots and start communicating with ice cream truck drivers. Yesterday it rolled out a new jingle called “It’s Good,” produced by RZA, as part of a call for a more inclusive, anti-racist world.

Greater consciousness and changing views over time can render once-familiar tropes and memes redundant. Often, though not always, these occurrences arise from ignorance rather than malice.

I remember using the phrase “nitty-gritty” in an editorial many years ago and being surprised to receive a letter from a disgruntled reader chiding me for using such a term.

I’d used it to mean “getting down to business” or “the heart of the matter,” not realizing the phrase may have had its roots in the slave trade, used to refer to the debris on the bottom of a ship once slaves had been removed from it.

I never used the phrase again and it has since been banned by a lot of media outlets in their style guides.

Changing views on historical figures have also been high on the agenda this summer, with statues being pulled down around the country during protests around racial injustice prompted by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody and other high-profile deaths of innocent Black people.

In addition, legacy marques including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth's have all reassessed their branding in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Apparently there was some nervousness within Unilever’s corporate ranks about the proposed Good Humor activation. Unilever also owns Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but that brand has always been associated with a certain tone of voice and willingness to make statements on social and political issues. Good Humor comes from a more conventional heritage.

But the discussion around Turkey in the Straw picked up a momentum of its own separately and prior to this campaign coming out, and the issue even reached the CEO’s inbox, which finally convinced them it was the right thing to do.

Inserting a brand into these discussions makes sense if it is relevant, authentic and credible, and the Good Humor intervention seems to me to be an appropriate case study, especially in its 100th anniversary year.

Good Humor created the original ice cream truck and, while it hasn’t owned any of them since the 1970s, it is still synonymous with them as its ice cream products are staples on the trucks and the brand works closely with drivers around the country.

Drivers can download the jingle from Good Humor’s website and the brand is also working with Nichols Electronics, the Minneapolis company that makes ice cream truck music boxes, to preinstall the new tune.

Unilever’s long-term PR agency partner Edelman created the integrated campaign and RZA debuted the new jingle yesterday with a high-profile earned media spot on CBS This Morning, which prompted a slew of other media coverage.

There are also plans for paid media placements on YouTube and radio in the key New York and Los Angeles markets to elevate awareness about the new jingle and its purpose.

As with Weber Shandwick’s Got Milk? campaign reinvention last week, this is another example of a PR firm playing in spaces you would more normally associate with creative firms, and that’s really good to see.

The insight was sharp, the research was good; the influencer chosen to work with was smart; and the activation was creative and impactful. All so far, so good. But the key metric now will be the take-up of the new jingle with ice cream truck owners.

Those operators are a unique constituency and likely to be quite set in their ways. Their exploits have even erupted into turf wars, such as the never-to-be forgotten faceoff in 2013 between Sno Cone Joe and Mr. Ding-A-Ling in Gloversville, NY.

But if Unilever and Edelman can help them envision the chance to engage a new young customer base through the acquired credibility of adopting the tunes of the Wu-Tang Clan front man, commerce will quickly overtake traditionalism.

Only when we automatically associate RZA’s new It’s Good jingle with ice cream and it becomes an ear worm that burrows its way into our mass human consciousness like Turkey in the Straw did can Good Humor truly claim this campaign has changed attitudes and been a success.

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