The curious case of the conservative ice cream
A history of a Star-Spangled Ice Cream, the short-lived brand billed as the anti-Ben & Jerry's
Hello, Snackers. Ben & Jerry’s is still out there going strong and making delicious ice cream and promoting liberal causes, but for a few years in the early 2000s, they had a conservative competitor.
If you’re new here, welcome to Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the cultural history of snacks (and sometimes other foods). Monday posts are usually just for paid subscribers but this one is public because why not.
I assume you’re familiar with Ben & Jerry’s, arguably the most famously “liberal” consumer brand, with its flavors like Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Change is Brewing. They’re now a subsidiary of Unilever, the behemoth that also owns Vaseline, Hellman’s, Dove soap, and Axe body spray (international corporations: they contain and control multitudes). Still, Ben & Jerry’s continues to be outspoken—it’s part of the brand’s identity at this point—and “Our Progressive Values” is an entire section on their website.
For a few years in early 2000s, Ben & Jerry’s had a conservative competitor called Star-Spangled Ice Cream, which was launched as a branding opportunity for people excited that the Bush administration had started a war under false pretenses, which would eventually lead to the deaths of an estimated 400,000 Iraqis, along with more than 4,000 American troops.
Star-Spangled Ice Cream was explicit about being the anti-Ben & Jerry’s. Here’s a screenshot of their website from March 2003, when the brand launched:
The company’s official origin story was that it was “just three guys with an idea,” food-industry neophytes who decided to get into the game because they liked ice cream but hated what Ben & Jerry’s stood for. As with so, so many corporate origin stories (a frequent topic of this newsletter), this one was false, as NBC News noted in 2006:
But there’s more to them than that. All three have deep roots in the conservative movement, and they know how to get attention for their causes. This story is probably proof of that.
Lessner, the vice president (a position he was assigned by drawing straws), is an associate in Capital City Partners, a powerhouse conservative consulting and public relations group; he is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union, an intellectual engine of American conservatism. CEO Frank Cannon, former head of Students for Reagan, co-founded Capital City; he ran Gary Bauer’s presidential campaign in 2000 and contributes regularly to The Weekly Standard. President Andrew Stein is a major-league corporate lawyer in New Jersey.
None of them, in fact, know how to make ice cream. They contracted that part of it to a Baltimore dairy called Moxley’s. They say they don’t know owner Tom Washburn’s politics and don’t care, because he makes great ice cream.
By 2005, the company was selling two lines of flavors, each with a goofy pun and an equally goofy cartoon mascot. The Sweet Taste of Freedom varieties were sold in retail stores, and consisted of Air Force ‘Plane’ Vanilla, Fightin’ Marine Tough Cookies & Cream, G.I. Love Chocolate, Iraqi Road, Navy BattleChip, and, inevitably, Smaller GovernMint. (I’m so curious how the company’s owners felt about the fact that they had to adhere to actual government regulations, including publishing nutritional information.)
The other line, “Ice Cream with a Conservative Flavor,” was available for mail order and had five varieties: Gun Nut, I Hate the French Vanilla, Iraqi Road, Nutty Environmentalist, and, once again, Smaller Governmint.
This may have been a time before nearly every brand was taking (or at least pretending to take) some kind of political stand, as they do now, but food-as-politics was hardly anything new, and 2003 was, famously, also the era of “freedom fries.” (There’s also a whole fascinating history of ice cream’s role in the American military, including a $1 million floating ice cream factory.)
In this sense, it’s not especially surprising to know that Star-Spangled Ice Cream existed, or that it was a favorite of own-the-libs conservatives, gaining endorsements from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and, especially, Ted Nugent, the last of whom was a particularly big fan of “Gun Nut.”
The ice cream also got plenty of attention in the more mainstream media, generally in short round-ups of “quirky” news related to the war, and clearly cut-and-pasted from the company’s own press releases. Here, for example, is piece from the Philadelphia Daily News on March 31, 2003, when the internet was still not the omnipresent news source it is today:
(I should add that the top two-thirds of this newspaper page is a genuinely good column by Myrna Shure about how to talk to kids about war, with this useful guidance: “Talking about it at the level they can understand helps to relieve fears and anxieties, and allows them to take control of their lives.”)
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You may be wondering if Star-Spangled Ice Cream actually tasted good, and the answer, apparently, is not really. A group of MSNBC reporters tried some flavors and—admitting their potential liberal bias—said that it was “tooth-achingly sweet” and “a little chalky.” Over at the New York Times, the “a dozen randomly selected taste-testers” found that Smaller Governmint tasted “like toothpaste or Noxzema shave cream,” the I Hate the French Vanilla could have used more French, although “Nutty Environmentalist and Iraqi road won some compliments”—except for the person who declared the latter “chalky.” The ice cream also had lower butterfat than Ben & Jerry’s, so it didn’t meet the liberal brand’s “superpremium” designation.
All in all, it sounds like the ice cream just kinda bad, failing the basic free-market test of “creating a product that people genuinely want to consume.” Even among more conservative outlets, the coverage was, essentially, “Here is a new ice cream, it exists.” Also, it was expensive, at $66 for six pints. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to about $101 today, which is more than you’ll pay for a lot of genuinely gourmet ice cream on Goldbelly today, and those manufacturers usually toss in free shipping, which Star-Spangled Ice Cream did not.
All of this probably explains why the company quickly ran into that ever-looming wall of capitalism and closed up shop within a few years, surely the rapidly-falling public opinion of the war was also a factor, war-themed novelty products being a lot less desirable once you understand what they actually represent.
I can’t tell exactly when Star-Spangled Ice Cream finally shut down but it didn’t take long. In 2006, one of the founders told NBC that sales were still going strong, despite plummeting support for the war, but looking at the Internet Archive version of the company’s website, the copyright date at the bottom of the pages never got past 2005, and the website itself appears to have gone dark sometime in 2009, or at least there are no more records of pages beyond a front page with a broken Flash graphic.
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Again, nearly twenty years later, all of this is fairly familiar territory. As Mike Proulx discussed in a column for Ad Age in 2021, “this year’s The CMO Survey saw a nearly 50% year-over-year increase in marketers who believe it’s appropriate for brands to take a stand on politically charged issues.”
The early years of the 2000s were in many years a preview of things that surround us today, including both a supercharged media landscape, with endless hot takes and bad-faith both-sidesing, and a feeling that every action—including which brands you buy—makes a political statement. It’s also worth noting that, while Star-Spangled Ice Cream is no more, and Ben & Jerry’s appears to be thriving, there is actually a connection between ice cream and present-day conservatism. You’re familiar with Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona? Before he got into politics, he was the CEO of Cold Stone Creamery.
(This post was inspired by a tweet last summer by Washington Post reporter David Weigel.)
Thanks for reading! Two quick notes!
I’ll be leading a writing workshop (on seeking out small details that tell a big story) at TravelCon on April 28th in Memphis. I’d love to see you there! Conference info here, and my workshop details and registration should go live later today.
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