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What Has Unilever Learned?

In a previous TOI blogposting of 25 July 2021, when the Ben and Jerry’s matter was getting lots of ink in the newspapers and even more megabytes on the Internet, I noted that the “Our Brands” page on Unilever’s website omitted Israel from the list of countries on the drop-down menu, and I questioned the credibility of Unilever’s purported nonparticipation in the BDS agenda.  My Letter to the Editor published in the 4 July 2022 edition of the Jerusalem Post reasserted those concerns, noting that the Internet Archive memorialized the same absence of Israel on the drop-down menu as late as 13 November 2022.

When I e‑mailed that Letter to the Editor to the Post, Unilever CEO Alan Jope was among those copied in on it.  Mr. Jope forwarded that e‑mail to Unilever’s London Press Office, who promptly responded to me.  The Press Office people politely explained to me that Unilever had done “a significant rationalisation of” their website, and that other countries, including but not limited to Singapore, France, Italy, and Poland, were similarly eliminated from the drop-down menu.  The Press Office people also demonstrated that all of those other countries, including Israel, were enumerated at the time on a different page of Unilever’s website, and that following a subsequent revamping of its website, Israel is now on par with all other countries on the “change location” tab.  Unilever has thus shown a basis for its contention that Israel’s omission from the drop-down menu was not “motivated by anything other than a simplification of [its] corporate website network.”

Unilever’s assertions must be sized up in light of the history of the Israel Ben and Jerry’s franchise in Israel beginning in 1987.  A detailed overview of this history (albeit from the perspective of Avi Zinger, who controlled the Israel Ben & Jerry’s franchise and who continues to control it following the settlement buy-out from Unilever) can be read in the 105-page Complaint filed against Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s by Mr. Zinger in New Jersey federal District Court in March 2022.

Essentially, on 19 July 2021, Matthew McCarthy, Unilever’s CEO man at Ben & Jerry’s, informed Avi Zinger that the franchise, which had been renewed without significant fuss or fanfare on various occasions since its 1987 inception, would not be re‑upped following its expiry on 31 December 2022.  Following unproductive attempts to address Unilever’s concerns stemming from BDS pressure from Ben & Jerry’s board, Zinger felt compelled to bring the matter to court; the lawsuit was settled with a buy-out agreement whereby Unilever would sever all of its Ben & Jerry’s ties to Israel in favor of Zinger and his company, American Quality Products Ltd (AQP).

Back to my 4 July 2022 Jerusalem Post Letter to the Editor:  I stated there that “[i]t is quite preposterous to suggest that a company whose brands in Israel include Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Telma cereals, Knorr soup mixes and Rexona deodorant would inadvertently omit Israel from its listing of countries in which its products are purveyed.”

It is noted that Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever in 2001; this corporate acquisition raised antitrust-type concerns by Israel’s Restrictive Trade Practices Authority in light of Unilever’s controlling interest in Strauss, another purveyor of ice cream in Israel.  Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever resolved RTPA’s concerns in 2001 by signing a Consent Decree.  It is further noted that all relevant franchise agreements thereafter contained a provision that AQP and Unilever would comply with “all applicable national or local laws and regulations ” of Israel and of the USA.

Given (1) Unilever’s aforementioned legal entanglement with Israeli governmental authorities; (2) that Unilever has apparently not attempted to place any BDS-inspired conditions upon Strauss; and (3) the marked increase in BDS activity during the years following the 2018 franchise re‑up, in order to believe that Israel’s exclusion from the drop-down menu on the earlier version of Unilever’s website was the fortuitous result of Unilever’s general website simplification, one would have to believe that Unilever’s public relations and marketing functions were incompetently tone-deaf and did not effectively coordinate with one another.

I, for one, am willing to accept that explanation.  For three summers during my college years, I drove a Good Humor ice cream truck in Philadelphia (Good Humor was then, and remains today, a Unilever brand).  During that time, I and my fellow driver-salesmen and saleswomen bore the brunt of two public relations and marketing fails.

It was during those years that the bacteria scandal occurred, whereby Good Humor and some of its key personnel were indicted in connection with high coliform bacteria content in products manufactured at Good Humor’s Brooklyn facility; the corporation settled the case with a guilty plea agreement entailing a monetary fine, and an agreement to upgrade quality controls at its Chicago and Baltimore facilities (the Brooklyn facility having been shut down in the interim).  This obviously harmed our sales, even though the products carried by Philadelphia trucks were manufactured in Baltimore and not in the Brooklyn plant.

The other fiasco was that the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue hit the street-vend ice cream industry with a determination that its product sales were subject to the Pennsylvania Sales Tax on the same basis as food served in restaurants, and not, as all in the industry had previously presumed, food items that were exempt from the tax.  Good Humor’s competition (primarily Mister Softee and Jack & Jill) simply raised their prices.  Good Humor, on the other hand, posted signs on all the trucks to the effect that the driver of the truck must comply with the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue and collect a sales tax on the ice cream sold from the truck, along with a table of prices and amounts of tax.  Nobody enjoys paying taxes, and arguments over taxes have been known to turn to violence.  We were effectively blamed for imposing the sales tax, and subjected to all types of scorn, ridicule, degradation, and humiliation for it.  I was called a “cheap, rotten jewbastard” (the latter term being a single 10-letter word).

{Never mind that we all had to carry lots of pennies in order to make proper change.}.

So no, Unilever’s practices were likely not motivated by any animus towards Jews or Israel, but Unilever has not adequately learned from the history of its brands.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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