The Cheerios Controversy: Why Is the Depiction of a Multiracial Family So Contentious?

by Jimei Hon

Last spring, Cheerios aired a charming commercial featuring a ‘contemporary’ American family, an interracial couple and their biracial daughter, discussing the health benefits of the famous breakfast cereal.  

Within days the advertisement had generated such a strong racist backlash that its Youtube comments section had to be disabled.

While the internet generates a certain degree of negativity in response to almost anything posted – the comments to this advertisement were specifically targeted to the racial makeup of the depicted family. Before Cheerios closed the comments section, there were references made to Nazis, “troglodytes” and “racial genocide.” Similar vile sentiments were also posted to the cereal’s Facebook page: one user commenting that the commercial was “disgusting” and that it made them “want to vomit.” Other comments expressed shock that a Black father would stay with his family.

In stark contrast to these horrific displays, there was also a lot of support for the advertisement. Over four thousand Facebook posts expressed joy and appreciation in response to the company’s decision to feature a mixed race family.  A small selection of these sorts of positive comments included, “I have waited 53 years to see a family that looked like mine…Thank you.” “As a biracial kid who has never been represented in media, this meant the world. Thanks Cheerios!” And another user eloquently quipped, “I didn’t see race. I saw a daughter loving her dad by giving him something to keep him healthy.”

General Mills stated that it did not intend for the commercial to be provocative. Camille Gibson, Cheerios’ vice president of marketing, stated that the ad was meant to reflect, “that there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all.” Ms. Gibson’s statement reflects the ongoing trend of commercials with diverse casts becoming increasingly common. In addition to ads depicting interracial couples, now there are ads with single or divorced parents, same-sex couples, people with disabilities and Spanish speaking families.

 It has been over forty-five years since the Supreme Court stuck down state laws against interracial marriages in Loving v. Virginia. In the decades since that decision, the numbers of interracial marriages and multiracial children have steadily risen. By 1993, it was reported that the incidence of mixed-race babies has increased at 26 times the rate of any other group. (Jan R. Weisman, An “Other” Way of Life: The Empowerment of Alterity in the Interracial Individual) Still, it was only in 2010 that the Census first allowed participants to check off more than one race. The results revealed that 2.9% of the total population in the United States (9,009,073 people) had identified themselves as belonging to “two or more races.”

Despite the increasing number of interracial families and mixed race children, the fears surrounding interracial mingling still obviously exert some influence in the American psyche. Michael Thornton explains that concerns surrounding interracial relationships stem from unresolved feelings as to how to define race and viewing race as inherently separate biological constructs. Thus, the persona of the mixed race child leads to an unsettled feeling in terms of where they may fit into society. The questions posited to interracial couples often revolve around the subsequent consequence of crossing these ‘distinct’ boundaries. “But what about the children? Won’t they suffer because of how society views them?” “They won’t fit anywhere, they are neither black nor white.” Or, on a happier and more optimistic note, “mixed children make the world a better place. They can see both sides.” (Michael C. Thornton, Hidden Agendas, Identity Theories, and Multiracial People)

The fact that companies like General Mills are creating these kinds of advertisements and that such staunch opposition is generated against racist remarks, makes me, as the product of an interracial couple, feel incredibly hopeful in the direction that our nation is headed. At the same time, I find myself wondering how it can be that nearly fifty years after Loving this kind of issue is still garnering such controversial national attention. Similarly, the persistence of anti-miscegenation perspectives in response to an adorable girl pouring Cheerios on her father is heartbreaking.

I personally loved the commercial and I think, as the number of interracial marriages and mixed race children continues to grow, that other companies should take a cue from General Mills and challenge Americans’ views of the ‘traditional family.’ Cheerios’ decision to air this kind of commercial can allow for discussions about race and interracial relations to be accessible to the general public, particularly among younger generations. These kinds of familial relationships being portrayed on television may not only allow for conscious recognition of the fact that the mixed-race demographic is growing but, on a subconscious level, may also help undo the divisive fears and racist sentiments of our past.

During this year’s Super Bowl, an event widely held to be the year’s biggest showcase for advertising, Cheerios cereal aired their first ever advertisement during the game: a sequel portraying the same contemporary family.

While initial comments to this sequel had ranged from racist remarks, to sentiments that this kind of commercial was “long overdue” and others expressed how important this kind of commercial is in terms of starting a discussion on how the American family is seen and portrayed, General Mills expressed a simpler motive. “Like millions of Americans, we just fell in love with this family,” Ms. Gibson stated in a phone interview. “The big game provided [an] opportunity to tell another story about family love.” 

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