Cheerios Commercial Leaves Bitter Taste

A recent Cheerios television ad featuring an interracial family led to some ugly racial comments online. Host Michel Martin and Michael Burgi of Adweek discuss what the reaction says about marketing to minorities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to talk about a Cheerios ad that's caught some attention. The commercial features a mom, a dad, and a cute little girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: Mom?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Yes, honey?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: Dad told me that Cheerios is good for your heart, is that true?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Says here that Cheerios has whole-grain oats that can help remove some cholesterol, and that's heart-healthy.

MARTIN: The little girl dashes away from the breakfast table with the cereal box and the ad ends with Dad waking up on a couch to find Cheerios poured on his chest. So what's the big deal, you ask, that's sparked such a firestorm of comments that Cheerios actually disabled the comments section on YouTube? Well, it was the casting, apparently: it featured a white mother, a black dad, and a biracial child. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Michael Burgi, he's a features editor for Adweek, and he's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL BURGI: Thanks, pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So, do you remember seeing this ad yourself and do you remember thinking that there would be some reaction?

BURGI: Well I only saw the ad once my colleagues at Adweek had written about the firestorm that was showing up on the YouTube comments when Cheerios posted the ad on YouTube.

MARTIN: And what were some of those reactions that caused this response?

BURGI: The most horrific kind of vitriolic, bigoted, racist stuff you'd ever want to read and it's a very good thing, in my mind, that Cheerios disabled the comments because it was just - it was bile of the darkest order.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of whether that sentiment was widespread? Because it's my - my recollection was that there were a lot of positive comments as well.

BURGI: Oh no, the positive comments came afterwards because there was this immediate reaction to the negative comments and that caught the media's attention. And then there was a real kind of an outpouring of positive comment to support the ad. So it's been this kind of reaction and then reaction to the reaction.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of, before the comments were disabled, of how widespread the reaction was? And I'm also curious about your previous experience with ads that has casting that was a bit unusual. Is that a common reaction?

BURGI: It's actually less common than you'd think. But I would argue that it's become more common in the era of social media and Internet trolls, people who are out there on the Web looking to spark kind of negative reactions in people by being negative towards them. It's a real recent trend that we're seeing and I think it's popping up in pop culture even, and I think this has something to do with it, because though there aren't many examples of multiracial families or couples on television advertising, much less so than you'll see in television itself, there are a couple of ads and they have not sparked a similar kind of reaction.

MARTIN: And why - and you think it's, what, the social media component just makes it easier for haters to hate or just to let you know...

BURGI: Absolutely...

MARTIN: ...that they're being haters.

BURGI: Well not only for haters to hate, but they can hate anonymously. I mean that, you know, that's the real double-edged sword of the world in which we live in these days. Anyone can pretty much say anything and they can hide behind the cover of anonymity. And, you know, anonymity can make the biggest cowards much more brave.

MARTIN: You know, we noted that the Pew Research Center did a recent report on interracial relationships. They found that, using 2010 data, about 15% of new marriages in the United States were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another. That's more than double the share in 1980, which only 6.7%, and it also, the same report, says that more than a third of Americans say that a member of their immediate family or a close relative is currently married to someone of a different race. So there's this kind of ripple effect. There's a lot more people in interracial marriages; there are a lot more people who know someone or are related to somebody.

BURGI: Right.

MARTIN: I'm wondering what you think that - I'm not asking you to speak for Cheerios, the people who make Cheerios, but who do you think they're reaching out to in this ad, what do you think is that - just that they thought the people were cute or do you think they're reaching out to this family or the people who are related to them? What do you think their idea was?

BURGI: It is hard to speak for Cheerios and I really don't - I have to be careful here. But if you look at the ad in its absolute terms, it's you know, it's a cute ad. It's actually a very sweet ad that delivers on the message that Cheerios is trying to get across, that it's a heart-healthy product and this little adorable child goes and pours the Cheerios on her dad's chest because she wants his heart to be better.

Was Cheerios trying to deliver some sort of message by casting this family as biracial? I don't know the answer to that but I do know that there was nothing wrong with doing that. It - in its absolute context, the ad is, I would say, successful, heartfelt, and seemed to deliver on the message they were intending. And I think all Cheerios is doing, whether they meant to or not, is putting up a mirror to the fabric of our society today.

The statistic you quoted before, 15% of all relationships or marriages are now multiracial. There's, in my mind, there's nothing wrong with reflecting that reality in the advertising we see, just like we're seeing it reflected in our popular media.

MARTIN: I'm asking you to predict, which is always not fair, but I'm going to ask anyway. Do you think there would have been a similar reaction if there had been a same-sex couple, for example, featured in an ad. And do you think if the trend continues and agencies continue to - or companies continue to use what we might call now nontraditional casting - that they'll just have to expect this kind of reaction or do you think it'll just stop at some point?

BURGI: Well I think there would probably be a similar reaction if, let's say, a same-sex couple was featured. And, you know, I was trying to do do my homework over the weekend to find a lot of examples of same-sex couples in advertising. They do exist. For the most part the print advertising world is much more edgy and kind of at the forefront on this. Fashion advertisers, in particular, really have no problem showing multiracial couples or same-sex couples.

But to get back to your point, I think there would have been a similar reaction, but I do believe that now that the floodgates are open and now that there's this real dialogue going on about this issue and the majority of response is: what is the big deal, this is just part of our culture and our society we live in - that the reactions will become less and less severe. And I really do believe that this is just a very vocal minority of people who are just struggling to accept the fact that our society and our culture is changing.

MARTIN: Michael Burgi is the features editor for Adweek. He was with us from our bureau in New York and if you want to see the ad and read more about it, check out the blog post by NPR's Code Switch team, go to npr.org/codeswitch. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

BURGI: My pleasure.

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