Cheerios a consumer brand perhaps least likely to be embroiled in a racially tinged controversy has found itself in just that.
Social media blow-back has been fierce, nasty and unusually racist after the top-selling General Mills cereal brand last week began airing then posted online a commercial featuring a mixed-race girl.
In the ad, she is seeking nutritional advice from her white mother and black father. The spot ends with her pouring a bunch of Cheerios on the chest of her sleeping father, believing it will make his heart healthier.
Even in an era when the nation's African-American president is in his second term in office and with minorities soon to become a majority population, much of the social media response to the ad has been poisonous, leaving some wondering what kind of reality such Internet response actually reflects. According to the most recent Census, married couples of different races and ethnicities grew by 28 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, from 7 percent to 10 percent.
The YouTube comments section for the ad, which has been viewed more than 2 million times, was disabled late last week. "We are a family brand and not all of the comments were family-friendly," Camille Gibson, vice president of marketing for Cheerios, said in an e-mailed comment.
General Mills is standing by the spot and has no plans to stop airing it or to take it down from its YouTube channel. "There are many kinds of families, and Cheerios celebrates them all," Gibson said. Despite some serious, negative response online, "it's been a very positive response overall."
Perhaps the real issue is that it's no longer just edgy brands trying to portray the American consumer, said Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a firm that monitors African-American marketing. "We think of Cheerios as a great American icon," he said. "There are going to be people who feel that their image of what's American is now being challenged by these iconic brands."
Call it new reality vs. old prejudices.
"A progressive-looking commercial collides with the ugliness of the Internet," said Barbara Lippert, media and pop culture columnist at MediaPost.com.
Sometimes the ugliness wins. "The reality is that in general most big companies don't want to take a lot of risks," said Laura Ries, who has written five books on marketing and brand strategy and consults for companies large, small and in between.
"The ability for nameless, faceless people to get on the Internet is out there, and companies don't like it when people yell at them," she said.
Marketing experts are applauding General Mills, which introduced the brand in 1941 as "Cheerioats" and in 1945 changed the name to Cheerios.
"They can't bow to this incredible ugliness and underbelly of hatred," Lippert said. "If the father had not been black, it would have been just another spot."
General Mills is not bending. Asked how this might affect casting for future Cheerios commercials, Gibson replied, "I don't think it does."
Cheerios is not the first brand to show a black and white couple with a biracial child. A TV commercial for Blockbuster recently featured a white mom, black dad and biracial son enjoying a rental on the couch. As far back as 2009, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and its "spread a little joy" campaign had a black man and white woman (no wedding bands) enjoying a bagel breakfast in bed.
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