By Amanda Ortiz-Pellot
Allison Durazzi, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Rhetorical and Professional Communication program at Iowa State University, has dedicated her research to uncover some of the practices and considerations that companies employ when commemorating notable figures or social issues through their products. In this article, she explains her efforts and dives into her experience in the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program at Iowa State University.
When it comes to raising awareness towards specific social justice issues, companies develop myriad approaches to carefully execute this fundamental effort. Many companies aim to display their support through different means such as advertisements, public statements, and even our favorite dessert—ice cream!
Ben and Jerry’s is a widely esteemed ice cream company known not just for its funky flavors but also for its political outspokenness and social justice commitment. From flavors like “Pecan Resist,” which highlights a movement of resistance against the Trump Administration’s discriminatory policies, to “I Dough, I Dough,” which celebrated the positive ruling on same sex marriage by the Supreme Court, Ben and Jerry’s use what they love most to speak up about important social issues.
But, when it comes to spreading a message about social issues, companies should avoid woke-washing their products for the sake of profit. The term “woke-washing” often describes companies who publicly display support for a social issue without taking proper action to solve the problem. So, how can companies like Ben and Jerry’s avoid appearing disingenuous to the public when advocating for social justice?
Allison’s abstract “Using Ice Cream to Communicate Culture and Social Justice Values: What Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Campaigns Can Teach Us About Using Food to Make Change” has been accepted for presentation at the annual joint conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS); Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS); Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS); the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN), and hosted by the Culinary Institute of America & New York University. Allison is excited for this opportunity as it will allow her findings to reach a larger audience, as well as provide guidance on how to name products meaningfully, especially when it commemorates a person or aims to effect change.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue a Rhetoric and Professional Communication degree?
A: Well, I came to the program after a career in mostly non-profit administration. Between this work and coming to Iowa State, I also spent several years as a freelance digital marketing director, where I did some interesting work relating to social media and strategic communications. This experience informed my choice to look into a professional communication master’s degree. At the time of making this decision, I wanted to know more about what made people accept or reject messages. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of professional communication that I knew I wouldn’t have been able to gain except through a college degree.
Q: What attracted you to the program?
A: Rhetoric is a discipline that can focus on either the communication studies or the English aspect of it. Still, here in Iowa State, the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program merges the two. So, I believed this approach would allow me to learn and experience both aspects since both would be beneficial for my professional development.
Q: What set your mind on attending Iowa State?
A: There were a few compelling parts to my decision to attend Iowa State. The first part that helped me solidify my decision to attend Iowa State was coming to campus and meeting folks and faculty from the university. Iowa State was very generous in helping people visit and experience campus, which made me feel welcomed. Other schools did not offer this opportunity, so I was very grateful.
Also, my application experience carried a lot of weight in my decision as well. I initially applied to the master’s Rhetorical Composition and Professional Communication program here, and I applied to a master’s degree in every other university. When I got my letter of application, I noticed Iowa State offered me the Ph.D. track. Even though it is mentioned on their website, I later learned that they reserved the option to extend a student’s application. It was really an honor to get that—I’m getting emotional talking about it—it made me believe there are a lot more possibilities for me…and that I had a lot more to contribute to the field.
Q: What are you most passionate about regarding RPC?
A: In the RPC program, we are encouraged to think about ways that we can contribute to make something that can be applied or something useful. For example, if we consider social justice, I want to know what I can do that will be meaningful to practitioners who need to have had conversations about social justice and reconciling difficult issues. So, the program’s encouragement to do this is something I highly appreciate.
Q: Now I read about your project regarding the best practices to naming products as a way to enforce social change, Can you give us an overview of the project?
A: So, I wanted to understand more about what lessons could be taken from how Ben and Jerry’s names their ice cream. I learned that there is a lot of scholarly research about Ben and Jerry’s, but no examination on how they actually used their flavors to create support for their social justice efforts.
Last summer, during the uproar of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited by George Floyd’s murder, while other companies issued supporting statements for the cause, Ben and Jerry’s was like, “here’s how you do it,” “Here is what needs to happen [to effect social change and support the Black Lives Matter movement].” I thought this was a rich opportunity to talk about how they are using their ice cream flavors to do this. No one would think that ice cream and a movement born out of violence could work together.
I found that Ben and Jerry’s works with national organizations on what needs to happen. I think they did one of the best practices a company should do when using their resources for social causes. For example, if you go to their website to buy a pint of their “Justice Remix’d” flavor, it gives you information about racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system. There are also resources on the page where customers can make donations, sign up for more information and get involved in more ways.
So, although it is not yet completed, I wanted to see if there was a pattern to how Ben and Jerry’s named their flavors when commemorating someone or raising social awareness, what they did with the ice cream, and where did the money go. This is definitely one of my favorite projects I have done.
Q: Why did you decide to pursue this project? What inspired you?
A: I worked with the Iowa State University Creamery—the university’s dairy food program that produces and sells dairy food products—creating content for their website as part of my visual rhetoric class. This started as a class project, but I continued it as an internship. Something interesting that I learned from this experience was that every flavor of ice cream has some connection to the university or the history of the university, whether it is the ingredients or the names of the flavors. This prompt me to think about the process behind naming favors, especially in honoring people or raising awareness for a cause.
I began to do some research to see if I could find anything applicable, which I didn’t. So, I thought about Ben and Jerry’s and how they name their ice cream after people…what do they do? What is considered in the process of naming the products? Where does the money go? These questions inspired me to pursue this project.
Q: Tell me about the skills you’ve had to employ to do this project? Did you have to learn any new skills?
A: For this project, I had to do a lot of digital archival research. I refer to it as digital archival research because I was literally in the online internet archive, a non-profit digital library. I began cataloging what I found, but I realized it was more than I could deal with…most of the research I did was putting everything I found into an excel spreadsheet and trying to find ways to categorize the flavor names.
I’ve always done this practice when I am dealing with large amounts of data. But I never realized that what I was doing is a research methodology called “Grounded Theory.” I never knew that there was a science to it where one may think, “there might be a pattern here, but I don’t know what it is,” which was what I was doing with this project and the ice cream names.
Q: Have there been any key turning points/challenges in this project? What did you do to solve them?
A: When researching their flavors on their website, I stumbled upon their flavor graveyard, which lists flavors that they don’t do anymore, but it’s not complete. I began searching the internet archive, which has something called the “Wayback Machine.” With this tool, I was able to find snapshots of old Ben and Jerry’s websites with the flavor names listings.
In the course of doing this, I saw that Ben and Jerry’s used to have a listing for an archive’s person. So, I found an old email for the archive’s person, and the email bounced back. So, then I thought, “who else would do this?” I emailed someone in the marketing department and asked about the archives. The respondent said the archive person retired, but she was willing to answer my questions. She then referred me to the flavor graveyard, but I told her how I already looked through it. I sent her a few questions and didn’t get a response until a week later, which I was already thinking I must have scared her off.
I got an email back, and she sent the answer to most of my questions! They are even interested to see what I came up with in my research.
Q: Were there any professors, instructors, faculty, or staff members that helped you along the way?
A: My classmates have been fantastic. I was the only Ph.D. student in my cohort, so everybody else has graduated now. But the students in the classes ahead of me have been really helpful. When I first visited campus, I met Cary-Ann Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate completing her research. She has been very helpful in getting me acclimated to the program and Iowa State. And she actually took me out for ice cream! That was the best.
Also, every professor I’ve had has been fantastic. They were very gracious with the struggles I had when I first came here, and they have been very sympathetic with my situation. Anne Kretsinger-Harries was super helpful in coaching me through my first semester as a Speech Communication instructor. She is just fantastically supportive. Also, Elena Cotos, in the Linguistics department, I had a class with her during my first semester, and she’s an amazing scholar, person, and professor. I still model how I teach every class on how she taught us. I learned so much about teaching from being a student of hers.
Since then, Dr. Jo Mackiewicz, my major professor, and Abby Dubisar, who was my adviser when I first came in. They have been so generous with ideas and help. Dr. Laura Brown was also fantastic when I was getting ready to submit my portfolio for review. Then, when I was applying to Iowa State, Teresa Smiley, who works with the director of graduate education, and Dr. Craig Rood would answer all of my questions and concerns about the program or department, which I truly appreciated.
This is hard. I just feel like, “who do I want to give props to?” Well, here’s the whole directory
Q: Was there anything that surprised you about the way the project was working out? Did you find something completely different than what you were expecting?
A: Yeah, so, when I was working on this project, I was a little surprised that what started out as a project about how Ben and Jerry’s names their flavors ended up being more about how a company can avoid “woke washing”—when a company appropriates the language and values of social justice causes to market products.
A big part of professional communication is audience analysis, messaging, credibility, and persuasion. There is a lot to be learned in product naming. Still, there’s just as much to be learned in the professional communication regarding whether or not customers can trust a company and believe it has credibility.
Q: What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
A: I am hoping it gets a bigger audience once it’s complete because I think it could help people who want to name something for somebody…If my business was ice cream, and that’s what I had to offer to bring awareness to something or to celebrate a person, I would want some guidance on how to do that. I know it is very niche but rarely is it considered the amount of effort put into naming something. There is a lot of rhetorical considerations around what you are naming. I care about having a product that I can share with other people so that they can replicate and use and adapt.
Q: What has been most rewarding in the making of this project?
A: Doing the Ben and Jerry’s project, the most rewarding aspect for me has been confirming how much I regard them as a company for doing this [social justice] work. There have been other projects where I start to analyze a company’s professional communication, and I lose respect for them. Once I start pulling apart the messaging and doing the rhetorical analysis of what’s coming through, I get disillusioned, but I didn’t experience that with this particular project. The research that I did showed me that they are taking proactive steps to demonstrate there are not being performative about social justice.
It was rewarding to be confirmed of their good work. Plus, I got to talk about ice cream for months!
Q: What are some lessons or advice you wish to impart on people who aspire to pursue a degree in RPC?
A: For people who want to come into the program is a matter of having some idea about the work you want to do. In this program, everyone stands out because there is such a variety of approaches and works. Also, if you are thinking of applying, I hope you do, because there is a lot of good that you can do with the study. Our master’s program for Rhetoric Composition and Professional Communication is both a good segue to continue Ph.D. studies in a variety of humanities programs, and for anyone who wants to go into technical communication with more theoretical understanding, similar to what I was yearning for when I first began applying for college.
As someone who has done the work and has been to the conferences in marketing and communication, you can’t get that deep a dive into the study anywhere else. Personally, I needed more. If anyone has that feeling of wanting to learn more and wanting to figure out how to excel, the Rhetoric and Professional Communication program will definitely be helpful.
I also think people should come to Iowa State, not just because I’ll enjoy the company, but we have one of the best-funded programs, so our support is fantastic. Also, we have fantastic ice cream, so how can you pass that up.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when thinking about the future?
A: I am really excited to take the next step and complete the project, as well as get it ready for publication. I have other projects that are in different stages of development that I also want to get published. I am also scheduled to be done with my coursework at the end of the calendar year, which means that I don’t have to take any more classes, and I’ll start doing my independent research.
My research focuses on technical editing, so I am starting in my qualitative analysis class right now, the first step of the project, so it is really happening! I am so excited. You might think it is about ice cream, but I am sure ice cream will play a part at some point.