My name is Noni Ford and I’m currently serving as a Jorgensen Fellow at the Moving Image Archive. My initial research at the Archive led me to the Clio Awards Collection where I decided to focus on ice cream ads and their marketing. The following article shows my research on the specific company Sealtest, and its history within the civil rights movement.
CORE takes on Sealtest
In 1962, the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) started a boycott of Sealtest, a dairy company headquartered in New York (Tuttle) . After identifying the discriminatory nature of Sealtest’s hiring practices, where “less than 1%” of staff were non-white, and African American and Puerto Rican workers at their facilities were given menial jobs, CORE sought to bring visibility to this disparity (Tuttle). In order to show solidarity with Puerto Rican workers, they produced flyers and leaflets in Spanish and English during the boycotts (Tuttle). Sealtest wasn’t very agreeable to the demands CORE made (“National and City Wide Campaigns”). As a company that had been a huge part of commercial dairy products for most of the early 20th century, they had a lot of power in the market. The year the boycotts began was also the year Sealtest won a Clio Award, which was an industry defining excellence award in advertising (“Cherry Nugget”). The award signified not only their astute grasp on marketing, but it also showcased the brand’s success.
One can’t say for sure why Sealtest didn’t immediately consider the demands of CORE. All that is known is that they didn’t change their hiring practices and in response, CORE went on a two-month campaign against the company – a campaign which consequently spread to other chapters of CORE. The Columbia University CORE chapter led protests and grassroots campaigns against Sealtest in February of 1963. According to a press clipping from The Columbia Spectator, CORE made significant progress to dissuade shop owners from selling Sealtest products (Sterling; Tuttle). Brooklyn CORE eventually came to an agreement with Sealtest, but it didn’t take long for other civil rights groups to begin fighting for disparities to be addressed amongst other Sealtest facilities around America.
MLK Jr. Involvement
One of the civil rights groups that started to work on a plan of attack against Sealtest and brands that had similar deficiencies was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a religiously organized African American civil rights body whose first president was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During an address at the conference in 1967, Dr. King reported on developments in what was called Operation Breadbasket. This plan was enacted in Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta with a focus to increase jobs in the Black communities, fund more money into black-owned banks, and use buying power to enforce changes in major companies hiring inequalities. Dr. King took part in the Sealtest negotiations in Cleveland, where after the company’s officials refused to disclose hiring and employee numbers, the SCLC was able to get Sealtest products taken off the shelves of A&P, a popular grocery store in Ohio. (King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”)
In a statement to the press, recorded by TV news station WEWS in Cleveland, Dr. King mentions the Sealtest protest in the days leading up to the signing and concession of the brand.
Sealtest came back to the negotiating table after the A&P boycott and ultimately accepted the changes the conference laid out which included putting serious investments into African American banks, ads into African American newspapers, and changing their hiring procedures to increase their African American employees. (“Martin Luther King Jr. on Boycott to Effect Jobs, 1967”) .
During his final speech in April of 1968, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” delivered the day before his assassination, Dr. King references Sealtest by name. He urges those in attendance to tell their neighbors not to purchase their products (King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”). He only calls out three other companies – Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread, and Coca-Cola (King, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”). It is interesting to note that by this time Sealtest had already come to agreements with civil rights groups in New York City and Cleveland. While Sealtest had agreed to change their work practices in these two cities, Dr. King felt that it was a brand that still deserved to be scrutinized and viewed with suspicion. Sealtest could say they had changed, but there were problems embedded in their corporate ranks that produced similar discrimination in their facilities nationwide. Perhaps Dr. King called them out in this speech because he felt that their past actions should still be acknowledged and not forgotten. A driving force behind Operation Breadbasket was the notion that, “If you respect my dollar, you must respect my person,” which wasn’t the case with Sealtest until numerous boycotts changed their principles (publicly at least) (King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”).
Damage Control on Brand Image
In the wake of protests from 1962 through 1968, Sealtest’s image would have likely undergone some damage. It’s also likely there were various ideas on how to brand or even rebrand their image in the marketing department. One potential response came in the form of a 1969 Sealtest ad titled “Kids.” The ad features different children drinking a glass of milk and then eating an ice cream sandwich or ice cream cone from Sealtest (“Kids”). The second to last child featured is an African American girl, smiling to camera and energetically eating her ice cream. Out of the four Sealtest advertisements I studied for this project, dating from the early 1960s to 1969 within the Moving Image Archive’s Clio Awards collection, this is the first chronological ad in which Sealtest features a person of color. In all previous ads the animations, the people, and even the hands that appeared scooping the ice cream were white. The “Kids” ad is not addressing the company’s controversy head on or even apologizing for their business’s inequalities, but it potentially shows that they want to be perceived as ‘changed’.
The ad’s inclusion of a Black child is used as a marketing angle, an angle which is working to convince an American audience that Sealtest is a viable company again. It can placate those that boycotted the brand to make it seem like they are marketing to a wider audience by including a miniscule amount of diversity to show a shift in their image. And for those that didn’t boycott but don’t want to align themselves with Sealtest, it can make them feel that this branding change is enough to show that the product isn’t as tainted as it used to be. For audiences that agreed with Sealtest’s practices and were actively against the civil rights movement, this inclusion could have been viewed with outrage, or it could have been seen as a concession made that did not fully erase their history. The Black child featured could be taken as a radical move or a superficial consolation depending on the group who viewed it.
This ad was the equivalent of a marketing band-aid, but it held up. As America moved into the later half of the 20th century, Sealtest was able to stay in business. They even had an ice cream parlor at Disney World established in 1981. The 1960s was a turbulent period for the brand and its perceptions as it battled against some of the larger civil rights groups in America. A part of Sealtest’s story and the story of American branding and rebranding can be seen using the ads in the Clio Awards Collection, giving us a view into the past.
Find more ads from the Clio Awards Collection here: https://media.dlib.indiana.edu/collections/4q77fv66s
“Cherry Nugget”. Clio Awards Collection. Indiana University Moving Image Archive, Bloomington, Indiana. https://media.dlib.indiana.edu/media_objects/5h73qh800.
“‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” AFSCME. Accessed February 27, 2023. https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop.
“Kids”. Clio Awards Collection. Indiana University Moving Image Archive, Bloomington, Indiana. https://media.dlib.indiana.edu/media_objects/7s75f199b
“Martin Luther King Jr. on Boycott to Effect Jobs, 1967.” YouTube. Scripps National News, January 15, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfXD2UIdnUo.
“National and City Wide Campaigns.” Core NYC. Accessed February 27, 2023. http://www.corenyc.org/citycampaigns.htm.
Sterling, Carleton W. “CORE Pickets Sealtest Again After Discrimination Talks Fail.” Columbia Universities Libraries. Columbia Spectator Archive. Accessed February 27, 2023. https://spectatorarchive.library.columbia.edu/?a=d&d=cs19630207-01.2.24&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-.
Tuttle, Lilly. “Civil Rights in Brooklyn: Behind the Scenes, New York at Its Core.” MCNY Blog: New York Stories, November 8, 2016. Accessed February 27, 2023. https://blog.mcny.org/2016/10/25/civil-rights-in-brooklyn-behind-the-scenes-new-york-at-its-core/.
“Where Do We Go from Here?” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, April 24, 2015. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/where-do-we-go-here.
Additional Audio References:
“MLK: I’ve Been to the Mountaintop!” YouTube. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, August 19, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gC6qxf3b3FI.