After four months in quality control rehab, Blue Bell ice cream is back, swearing she’s changed her ways and she really means it this time. She’ll never break our hearts—or spread listeria—again.
Texan loyalty to Blue Bell is, or was, like few other regional brand loyalties in America. Yes, the state loves Whataburger, Shiner, and H-E-B, but I would argue that Blue Bell’s brand mystique and hold over Texans transcended all of those. This is largely due to the late adman Lyle Metzdorf, who crafted and honed Blue Bell’s image for 33 years.
The commercials he created can still bring a tear to my eye—the brief trips to the bountiful Texas of yore, to porch swings and screen doors, Papaw in his Stetson and sweaty overalls, Meemaw in her Gold Medal flour–dusted apron. Brenham is one of the loveliest small towns in Texas, bluebonnet-painted, live oak–shaded rolling hills, stamped by speckled longhorns and roamed by white-tailed deer, all serenaded by cooing white-winged doves. That’s the Brenham and the Blue Bell that Metzdorf showed us.
He showed us with Belle the singing cow and her little girl:
“Have yourself a Blue Bell country day…”
And, wait. Is that …? It is! It’s a little Jesse Plemons, who grew up to be an actor in Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights! Look at him running from those geese!
Plemons, whose two major TV roles have taken him in vastly different directions, offers up a tidy little analogy: he is Blue Bell. For those of us who grew up with Blue Bell, he’s that little kid in the commercial, the one who grew up to become the hapless but indispensable Landry Clarke on Friday Night Lights. Jesse Plemons didn’t mean to do it. He made a mistake! But for those of us who grew up without the company’s pastoral lens, he’s the sociopathic Todd Alquist of Breaking Bad, quite willing to put the bottom line ahead of basic humanity. He is evil. Those two versions of Blue Bell became the Great Divide in public reactions to this summer’s deadly blunder.
You also have to think that Metzdorf was turning in his grave when the brand he worked so hard to craft was drawn into this summer’s Jade Helm conspiracy freak-out, with bloggers insisting that the company’s refrigerated trucks were being used as mobile morgues. You have to give the conspiracy theorists credit for that one. It was the essence of horror, the transformation of love and comfort into terror and oppression, like your grandmother sprouting claws.
But those efforts to discredit Blue Bell would have been laughable had it not been for the company’s own actions during the listeria outbreak. And I believe that to thrive again, it’s going to have to rip its business model down to the studs and start over.
This is not the same world it was in 1970, when Metzdorf came aboard and turned the creamery into a juggernaut. Setting aside the whole food safety thing, people now pay more attention than ever to what is on product labels, and Blue Bell’s lists of ingredients bely its down-home image. Long before the listeria outbreak, my dad, a Texan exiled in Tennessee for more than four decades now, was alternately elated and disappointed when Blue Bell arrived in Nashville. First he was pleased as punch to be reunited with an old friend, but then saddened when he read words like “high-fructose corn syrup,” “sodium benzoate,” and “artificial colors” on the carton.
Maybe there are enough people out there who are willing to set aside the listeria crisis and Blue Bell’s plentitude of synthetic ingredients. I polled my Facebook friends twice over the weekend and found a few such diehards.
“Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron all kill people. I still use their gas,” said Clint Heider. “[And] I can safely say that compared to the list of horrible things that I have eaten, and will continue to eat, Blue Bell is pretty much like eating raw kale with gluten free macrobiotic carrot spread.”
“Death by Blue Bell is a far site better way to die than a lot of other, more probable possibilities,” said Kimberly Elizabeth Clarady.
“I’m a rebel. An outlaw. I live on the edge. Danger is my middle name. Death-defying feats of eating ice cream are right up my alley,” says Albert Nurick.
Even so, maybe the company should work on coming back as a more natural Blue Bell, one more in keeping with the image so many of us treasure, an advertising-created idyll that never really was.