"It's time to blow out the candles," a woman wearing a lime-green party hat announced to a less enthused crowd. She turned to face the giant box behind her, which had been decorated to look like a Breyers ice cream carton. Dozens of candles lined its top brim, the three largest of which spelled out the number "150." Had I thought about it long enough—say, 11 or 12 seconds—I'd have realized just how flawed this scene was in both concept and execution. Birthday candles go on top of birthday cakes, not ice cream cartons. And besides, those candy cane-striped candles weren't even lit. How were we supposed to blow them out?
"Are you guys ready?" she asked.
No one responded.
The hundreds of people clustered around me in New York's Madison Square Park had ostensibly gathered on that sunny Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the 150th birthday of the ice cream brand. The pop-up event had promised free samples, some kind of ice cream history lesson, and the chance to see celebrity guests like Girls star Allison Williams, iconic Destiny's Child-gone-solo singer Kelly Rowland, and crushable Jane the Virgin actor Jaime Camil in the flesh. But, as I waded through the line that wrapped around the picnic benches of the park's southwestern quadrant, I learned that the crowd was just there for one of those things: free ice cream.
Pop-up events and pop-up stores make up a thriving pocket of an otherwise declining retail landscape, The New York Times reported in March. Everyone from Justin Bieber to the Hitler youth haircut enthusiasts of Warby Parker have turned to the business practice to bolster their brands and introduce new products in unconventional ways without risking longterm financial investment—much like how Breyers had created this birthday-themed event to spotlight the brand's new Ice Cream Cake flavor. Think of pop-ups like the food truck to a brick-and-mortar store's restaurant, the "How do you do, fellow kids?" to their Riley Weston.
Media coverage leading up to the event heavily emphasized the fact that Allison Williams was scheduled to appear as if she were the pop-up's sole celebrity headliner. But Kelly Rowland—the legendary Ms. Kelly herself—was also on the marquee. I don't know whether Rowland's upcoming fifth studio album will make the superstar prophecies foretold by "Dilemma," "Motivation," "Commander," and "Kisses Down Low" come to pass. What I do know is that Rowland should not be opening for a new ice cream flavor, much less for the star of NBC's Peter Pan LIVE! But, as I gauged public opinion at Madison Square Park, I found that I was in the minority for thinking that the event's true headliner was anyone other than free ice cream.
"Kelly Rowland was here?" a young man named Jhardel asked me in mild surprise. "I didn't even know that. I'm just here for the ice cream." Julia Rudansky and Samantha Sussberg echoed his priorities. The two twentysomething women, who happened to be grabbing lunch nearby when they noticed hundreds congregating around a giant black prism with birthday candles on top, conceded that seeing Allison Williams and Kelly Rowland IRL was "a cool bonus." But they remained firm that "free ice cream" had sealed the deal for them to stick around. "Not even a question," Samantha doubled down.
Another Julia, sitting at a picnic table with friend Cristine, are no strangers to pop-up events like this. "We came because [we saw] the sponsored ad on Twitter," the young woman told me, adding that she had hit up Kanye West's ice cream pop-up a couple weeks back. Why did they come to Madison Square Park? For the free ice cream.
With all due respect to my mom and the Great Caterpillar Cupcake Cake of '89, the pop-up felt a lot like the worst parts of a baby's first birthday party. Breyers has no real friends. So parent company Unilever lured hundreds of strangers to a park to celebrate its subsidiary's 150th birthday on the promise that everyone could have free ice cream in exchange for passively collaborating in a little branded myth-making. Three of those strangers probably even got paid to be there. I can't imagine anyone would choose to spend the afternoon singing a legally permitted half-verse snippet of "Happy Birthday to You" to an oversize ice cream carton if they weren't at least getting a cut of the profits.
"Free ice cream!" Williams yelled from the stage.
"Have you got a free ice cream?" Camil added, just in case we'd all forgotten why we were really gathered there mere moments after Allison had reminded us. Like a mouldless ball of Gak on a hot summer sidewalk, you must remember to keep posing and reposing a child to help it fulfill its customary social function on the one-year anniversary of its birth.
"Ten, nine," the master of our conceptually flawed ceremonies counted down. The more participatory attendees joined in by seven. The more sluggish, by six. What was going to happen when we reached one? Were we really expected to attempt to blow out those fake candles, their laminated fabric flames lapping in the breeze? A faint sensation of je ne sais Emperor's New Clothes wafted through the warm June air.
When the countdown reached its end, the people's rebellion didn't have the range. A pair of confetti cannons erupted around the fake carton, its candles lit as ever. "…Happy birthday!" Rowland interjected before taking a few solemn spoonfuls from her kiddie cup. Camil squatted to take selfies with fans who'd pushed their way to the front of the stage. Williams stood in total silence then looked up, appearing to make eye contact with a handler on the ground below. She pointed stage left and began to make her exit. Not wanting to miss their window to leave, the other two followed.
As Kelly stopped to say hi to an eager child standing right by the stage, a murder of teens and twentysomethings descended, smartphones in hand, front-facing cameras at the ready. I lost sight of Williams in the fray, but, according to her Instagram feed, she made it out in one piece.
"Who's that?" a kid in a lime-green, Breyers-branded party hat asked his friend as they rushed to grab a selfie before they missed their chance.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.