Brands Walk Tightrope With Juneteenth Merchandise
Yesterday was Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the effective end of slavery in the U.S. Though it has been celebrated since 1866, it wasn't declared a federal holiday until last year. With that, there has been an influx of corporations and other businesses creating merchandise related to Juneteenth, or releasing branded products incorporating a Juneteenth motif.
Unlike some holidays, though, brands are finding that creating Juneteenth merchandise or promotional materials requires a bit of finesse to avoid coming across as trying to capitalize on such a noteworthy day for the sake of a buck alone.
One example this year is Kohl's, which released "Juneteenth 1865" apparel for juniors and boys. JCPenney also released wall hangings. Though their intentions may have been pure, shoppers aren't quite sure products like this coming from such big-money businesses fit the spirit of the holiday.
Customers voiced their concern earlier this spring, when Walmart released a special "Celebrated Edition" Juneteenth ice cream. After facing backlash on social media, Walmart removed it from stores.
From the Indianapolis Children's Museum's watermelon salad to Walmart's swirled red velvet and cheesecake flavored ice cream to Dollar Tree's Pan African-themed plates and napkins, inclusion experts say corporations are missing the mark with Juneteenth https://t.co/yxQAbmjFh3
— CNN (@CNN) June 19, 2022
The National Assembly of American Slavery Descendants, an advocacy group that supports reparations for Black American descendants of slaves, criticized Dollar Tree for selling Juneteenth party decorations, claiming the products were not made by vendors who are descendants of slaves themselves, and therefore do nothing to help the community.
— Dollar Tree (@DollarTree) May 23, 2022
For what it's worth, Michelle Wlazlo, chief merchandising officer for JCPenney, told Reuters that the company will donate net profits from the sales of its Juneteenth products to Unity Unlimited, which helps communities "overcome racial and cultural division."
The issue overall is that by turning Juneteenth into a commodified holiday, it could "soften" the message and the holiday's history. While it's still recognized as "America's Second Independence Day," it's crucial to remember what the holiday actually commemorates. Some companies and people have even tried to trademark phrases related to Juneteenth, which has rubbed some people the wrong way.
It's not unlike how companies have adopted the messaging and imagery of Pride month, adding rainbow color schemes to their logos and creating Pride Flag merchandise. It's a good thing to appeal to marginalized communities and show support, but if brands simply add the flag or the messaging without putting any action behind it, it can come off as empty to consumers and do the opposite of what it was intended to do.
Every company profiting off of the sale of Juneteenth inspired merchandise should be giving a portion of those profits to organizations dedicated to improving the conditions of Black Life.
— Isaac G. Bryan (@ib2_real) June 18, 2022
For a lot of business owners, the idea of creating Juneteenth-themed promotions and merchandise is new. And, because of that, there might still be some kinks to work out and mistakes to be made. The key is to go at it with an educated eye, incorporating the community to create something that not only spreads the word, but the spirit of the holiday, too.
"What people are demanding is not a new ice cream flavor or a new salad or any other symbolic gesture that really is just about generating profit from a commercialized holiday," Amara Enyia, a public policy expert for the Movement of Black Lives, told CNN. "What Black folks have demanded are structural and systemic changes to the systems in this country that have been harmful and oppressive."