According to Our Hearts: Lessons Lost and Learned from the Cheerios Commercial Controversy

According to Our Hearts: Lessons Lost and Learned from the Cheerios Commercial Controversy

Steven F. Riley

Keeping our cholesterol and our expectations low

By now, most readers of and other race-related blogs and social media sites are well aware of the “Just Checking” commercial for the cereal brand Cheerios, a May 28 post on YouTube featuring an interracial family.

I would guess that the same readers are aware that General Mills, Inc., the maker of Cheerios, removed the comments section for the video after fielding a number of remarks that Camille Gibson, VP of  Marketing, stated were “not family friendly.”

Most other media outlets however, have not been so benign. The Deseret News reported “Biracial Cheerios commercial sparks racist comments;” The Huffington Post reported, “Cheerios Commercial Featuring Mixed Race Family Gets Racist Backlash;” MSNBC reported, “Interracial family in Cheerios ad sparks internet backlash,” to name just a few. Specialty news outlets chimed in also with AdWeeks’s headline, “It’s 2013, and People Are Still Getting Worked Up About Interracial Couples in Ads” and Business Insiders’This Is The Mixed-Race Cheerios Ad All The Idiots Are Complaining About.”

Despite the extensive coverage about the General Mills’ actions in response to the comments, there has been little if anything said about the actual comments posted on their YouTube site. Such is the sorry state of journalism today that comments about the news—rather than the actual events themselves—become the news.

I speculate with confidence that the Cheerios commercial received negative and racist comments (and positive and anti-racist comments too). A cursory scan through the videos on YouTube reveals that even apparently non-controversial videos can elicit the most hateful comments imaginable. Because General Mills is in the business of selling food products—and not in debating racial dynamics of family formation—it is understandable that they would remove the comments from the site.

Yet, General Mills’ action to remove the comments and the inaction of the media to investigate and shed light on those comments denies us the opportunity to confront and refute the ignorance and bigotry continuing to fester within our still pre-post-racial society.  Also, the overreaction to the yet unexposed remarks has the unintended consequence of empowering the individuals who posted them. Informed rebuttals to these comments could 1) enlighten the ignorant and racist commenters, 2) encourage others from embracing racist ignorance, and 3) provide solace and support to those waging combat against racist ignorance.  This concealment of ignorance merely encourages more ignorance as exemplified by (self-described unemployed) Meagan Hatcher-Mays’ essay in Jezebel titled, “I’m Biracial, and That Cheerios Ad Is a Big F–ing Deal. Trust Me,” where she, without quoting a single comment on the YouTube page, states, “What’s up with you racist dicks, anyway? Don’t you have jobs?” One commenter on a Facebook group posting even suggested that we could guess who reacted negatively to the ad.

Confronting the racism in the comments might just also provide us with an answer to that rhetorical question. Such an exercise would likely provide us an uncomfortable reminder that resistance and hostility to interracial relationships need not necessarily come from trolls from under the cloak of internet anonymity, but also from a family member we have known all of our lives.

I have not seen any of the racist comments in reference to the Cheerios ad, so I cannot comment on them. Yet I will remind readers that family formation across racialized borders have been occurring centuries before YouTube (2005), the birth of Barack Obama (1961—in Hawaii of course), court decisions to remove existing anti-miscegenation laws (1967), and acts of congress to reform immigration laws (1965). In fact, such family formations are as old as the Americas.  Relations between European men and indigenous women were essential to the establishment of European settlements in the pre-Columbian period. And as Audrey Smedley states in her 2007 presentation, “The History of the Idea of Race… And Why it Matters,”

No stigma was associated with [in the 1600s] what we today call intermarriages. Black men servants often married white women servants. Records from one county reveal that one fourth of the children born to European servant girls were mulatto (Breen and Ennis 1980). Historian Anthony Parent (2003) notes that five out of ten black men on the Eastern Shore were married to white women. One servant girl declared to her master that she would rather marry a Negro slave on a neighboring plantation than him with all of his property, and she did (P. Morgan 1998). Given the demographics, servant girls had their choice of men. One white widow of a black farmer had no problem with remarrying, this time to a white man. She later sued this second husband, accusing him of squandering the property she had accumulated with her first husband (E. Morgan 1975, 334). In another case, a black woman servant sued successfully for her freedom and then married the white lawyer who represented her in court (P. Morgan, 1998).

Though we are unable to learn much from the negative comments about the Cheerios commercial, I suggest we can learn much from the commercial itself.

As a person in an interracial marriage (25 years), I’m glad see yet another commercial featuring an interracial family. And the “Just Checking” commercial—in and by itself—is a amusing, pleasing, and does an excellent job of extoling the supposed health benefits of Cheerios. However, what troubles me is twofold. Firstly, the depiction of these families is far too rare. It is as if advertisers believe that these families do not exist, or worse, they believe they should not exist. This rendered invisibility contributes to the fear and animus that can occur when the rare depiction occurs.

Because interracial depictions are so rare, those of us who are supportive of such relationships far too frequently give our uncritical enthusiasm their visualizations. Yet, the depictions of these relationships are as important as their occurrence.  Images of interracial couples and families that are absent of the full range of intimacy of other relationships have the potential to foster harmful and demeaning attitudes to those couples and their families.

In Erica Chito Childs’s excellent monograph, Fade to Black and White: Interracial Images in Popular Culture, she describes how such depictions can be used to simultaneously both demean and deviantize interracial relationships and normalize monoracial (particularly white) relationships when she states,

Throughout the various media realms—television, film, news media, and the less clearly defined intersecting worlds of music, sports, and youth culture—representations of interracial sex and relationships follow certain patterns, and what emerges is a delicate dance between interracial sex sells and interracial sex alienates.  The small number of representations as well as the particular types of depictions of interracial relationships, when they are shown, reveals the lingering opposition to interracial sexuality and marriage as well as the persistent racialized images of racial Others and the protection of whiteness. Interracial representations are symbolic struggles over meaning, not only in how interracial relationships are portrayed but also in how they are received, understood, and responded to in the larger society.  In particular, interracial images are used to perpetuate negative stereotypes yet are simultaneously marketed as an example of how color-blind we have become and of the declining significance of race. Yet one may ask, Why are interracial relationships shown at all if they are still widely opposed by whites and other racial groups? The answer is twofold, as we have seen throughout the book, that showing interracial relationships is a necessary piece of the current rhetoric that asserts race no longer matters and the representations are only shown in ways that either deviantize these relationships, privilege whiteness, or support the contention that America is color-blind.

Thus my second concern is that when interracial couples are depicted, there is a often a distinct lack of intimacy between the couple/family. (Contrast this to the highly visible illicit extra-marital interracial intimacy on a newly popular television show, provocatively named Scandal.) As is often mentioned in media studies, what is not seen is often as important if not more important than what is seen. In many instances, if you blink or are not paying close attention, it is difficult to know that the individuals are a couple in the first place. For example, I have yet to see an interracial couple depicted holding hands, kissing or appearing in a bed mattress commercial (although I have been informed that Ikea had such a commercial.) While the “Just Checking” ad uses the young girl’s words “mom” and “dad” to create the familiar and marital connections between characters, her parents are situated in separate rooms. In the context of a portrayal of families within a commercial ad, this physical separation is hardly an issue. Yet, General Mills continues with the apparent proscription of interracial intimacy within their ad.

With the Pew Research Center reporting that 15% of all new marriages in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, it is no longer acceptable for advertisers to suppress the portrayal of interracial families or obfuscate the intimacy within their infrequent portrayals. I do not believe that is unreasonable to suggest that viewers should see at least one interracial couple or family depicted within commercial ads during the daily television prime-time period. The time is now that we as viewers—and more importantly—as consumers, demand the public depiction of images of interracial couples exchanging wedding vows, in hospital delivery rooms expecting the birth of their child, buying homes, laying in bed, and sharing meals (including breakfast) at the same table.

A few years back, Giant Foods (a supermarket chain in the Washington, D.C. area) aired a television ad featuring a (real-life) mixed-race family with similar issues that I described. Since the theme of the commercial was family meals, this necessitated having the entire family at the table. Despite this fact, tightly cropped camera angles where used to frame each family member separately, only revealing their relationship to each other via the passing of a salad bowl.

Despite my mixed feelings, I did contact Giant Foods to compliment them for portraying the family, if not only to encourage them to do more commercials featuring interracial families, but to counter any negative responses they may have received.  In the case of General Mills and the Cheerios ad, I would suggest supporters do the same, but I would also they suggest that advertisers add more intimate family interactions.

And to General Mills, I would suggest that the next cereal commercial produced could depict the same family sitting together at the breakfast table eating a bowl of Cheerios. It will be good for their hearts, and ours too.

©2013, Steven F. Riley

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