Late last May, I had the television on in the background while I worked. Around that time of day it would usually be tuned to HGTV (to satisfy my inner home remodeling nerd) but if I recall correctly I had it tuned to our local NBC affiliate instead. I can’t remember what show was on, but I do remember when they cut to a commercial break. That was the first time I saw the “Just Checking” ad for Cheerios. My thought process upon seeing the commercial went a little bit like this:
“Oh, would you look at that adorable little girl?…oh, is that her mom?…she said ‘Mom’, didn’t she? She did!…look at those cheeks! Awwwww…hmmm, she looks mixed, I wonder if they’re going to show her — hey, her dad’s black…did she just pour the cereal all over him? Haha!…what a nice little commercial!…hmmm, now I’m hungry…what’s for lunch?…” And I went on with my day, and thought nothing more of it.
A couple of more times during the week I saw the ad repeatedly, on different channels, and at different times of the day. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that such a wonderful commercial should start airing so close to the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, and throughout the run-up to our annual Flagship Celebration in New York; every airing was a fitting reminder of what the Lovings went through, which made me smile when I thought of it.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came this backlash. I heard reports of horribly unkind and quite frankly racist comments being put under the video on the General Mills YouTube channel. I say “heard reports”, because before I had a chance to see them for myself, General Mills disabled the comments section. But knowing what I know about the psyche of Internet keyboard superheroes, who use the supposed veil of anonymity as a license for misbehavior, I could guess what they were saying. The comments were obviously bad enough for the company to disable further comment.
Still, it was puzzling. What could have motivated such vitriol, even virtually? It was such a relatively benign commercial, for breakfast cereal. The “family” was wholesome and attractive, and the child actress who played the daughter could not have been more adorable. Did they have an issue with children? Cheerios? Children eating Cheerios? Cold breakfast cereal, as opposed to warm breakfast cereal? Did they have a problem with children who litter in the comfort of their own homes? What on earth was that all about?
Was the backlash driven from the fact that this commercial depicted an interracial couple? An interracial couple that had the temerity to — gasp! — give birth to a child? Or was it the racial and gender composition of the couple? Would there have been any backlash at all if the couple was (say) a white man and a black woman, or a white man and an Asian woman, for instance?
As it turns out, there was a way to find out.
Two holidays bookmarked the “Just Checking” Cheerios ad: Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. To take advantage of the selling opportunity, Kmart released two commercials: “Mommy’s Little Helper“, and “Butler in a Box“. Both feature the same naughty Capuchin monkey causing drama, and both feature the same interracial family. The father is Indian. The mother is white. They have not one, but two, kids. And the kids are each pretty clearly mixed Indian & white.
So I stood back, and braced for the imminent backlash…a backlash that never came.
Nothing. Not a single outraged tweet or Facebook post to be found.
You know that phenomenon where soon after your friend buys a white four-door car, all of a sudden it seems like every other car on the street that you see is also a white four-door car? Although I had always noticed commercials and advertising and movies and television shows that somehow featured interracial couples, post-“Just Checking” there seemed to be more and more and more. There was the series of ads for Samsung Smart TVs that featured a multi-generational Asian and white household. There’s the multi-generational, multi-racial “Family Picnic” ad for Lincoln Financial Group.
Then there was the Swiffer commercial with the Rukavinas. This real-life family comprises Zack, his wife Afi and their two children. Afi is black, and not only is Zack white, he also is an amputee. AdWeek’s article about this ad is titled “Most Inclusive Ad Ever?”
It was an entirely unscientific poll, but the results were fairly clear. The backlash was most probably fueled by the fact that the commercial showed the result of an interracial coupling between a black man and a white woman. Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, apparently, this particular pairing still was enough to raise the ire of those whose thinking was stuck in the charged racial atmosphere of decades long gone.
But, as often happens, a silver lining emerged from the dark cloud of online bigotry. In Georgia, a couple watched the Cheerios ad and was also baffled by the racist backlash. Michael David Murphy & Alyson West looked at the ad as a reflection not only of their reality (he is white, she is black, and they have a girl), but also as a reflection of a profound demographic shift in the United States. “According to the 2008 census,” as they said, “15% of new marriages are interracial. And yet, it still feels rare to see something like the Cheerios ad represented in mainstream culture.”
In response, they created the tumblr site We Are the 15 Percent, and invited readers to submit photographs of their mixed families. People from all across the country and from many countries around the world have added their family photographs to the collection. As the couple told TIME Magazine, “The site is such a natural outgrowth of our lives together; we’re in both for the long haul. We hope the site can persist long beyond its initial inspiration, and create a consistent, ongoing resource for families like our own. We can imagine that someone who submitted a wedding photo yesterday might submit a family picture, with their children, years from now!”
When General Mills released the “Just Checking” ad, representatives from the company said that although they were “a bit surprised it turned into a story…Ultimately we were trying to portray an American family, and there are lots of multicultural families in America today…and Cheerios just wants to celebrate them all.” Not only did the company stand by their commercial and what it was meant to portray, they have in fact doubled down. During Super Bowl XLVIII, one of the world’s most-watched sporting events, Cheerios debuted “Gracie“, a sequel to “Just Checking” where we learn that Gracie will soon have a baby brother. Looks like this series of advertisements is going to be around for a long while yet to come. Stay tuned!
By: February 2014 Guest Blogger – Eddie Nwabuoku
When he isn’t working on his world-changing Android app, tweeting inane yet pithy things, facebooking himself into oblivion, basking in the glow of his latest Drupal site, or speaking about himself in the third person, Eddie is the Director of Technology for the Loving Day Project.