Branding in the Internet age – The Case of the Cheerios Ad

by | Jun 11, 2013 | Marketing

​​Cheerios, a family-friendly brand usually more wholesome than controversial, sparked a national debate over family, race, and advertising this spring.

An advertisement featuring an earnest mom, a concerned kid, and a confused dad might seem pretty inoffensive. But the dad was black, the mom was white, and the kid was biracial — and that made all the difference.

The company posted the ad on YouTube, where racists disparaged the clip so badly that cereal executives made the rare move of asking the video site to turn off the comments section. Haters lambasted the clip for showing a mixed marriage, in ways that other ads — with spouses who are both black or Hispanic or white — never suffered.

For days, Cheerios executives remained mum as tempers flared. Writers noted that other commercials featured mixed-race couples — but not also a mixed-race child. Did that make the difference?

Meanwhile others agreed that the Cheerios ad is a big deal — in a good way. One biracial woman, writing on Jezebel, says:

“This commercial is a huge step for interracial families like mine who want to be seen in public together and maybe eat some heart-healthy snacks. But it also validates the existence of biracial and multiracial people…. Hopefully this commercial will lead to even more positive representations of not just interracial families, but all kinds of non-traditional families. To Cheerios, I give you one internet high-five, for doing your part to normalize families like mine and people like me. Increased visibility of our differences leads to things like “acceptance” and “disrupting the status quo” …”

Many may have supported the ad, but not felt so inspired that they had to shout about it. It is, after all, just a 30-second clip about breakfast food. People with a strong opinion are often a vocal minority, not the majority. Those with more moderate or supportive opinions on are less likely to comment – the “silent majority” versus the “vocal minority.” And in the past, a complaint could be a passing comment or a letter to the editor that a newspaper may never publish. But amplified by the internet and social media, a single comment can ricochet across networks and gain thousands of readers in minutes.

And so this Cheerios ad exemplifies today’s challenges for businesses and their brands.

For Cheerios, the question becomes — is all press good press? What responsibility does a company have toward the mean-spirited or racist people creating the hubbub, who want the ad removed? How much should the potential for online criticism drive decision-making? If everyone’s a critic, who do you listen to? What is the balance between meeting the needs of a changing clientele, while not angering more conservative voices? Do anonymous Internet posters matter, especially when the protests are insulting and, in this case, racist?

The managing director of a major branding firm, Allen Adamson, told the Associated Press:

“Advertisers for many years always took the safe route, which was to try to ruffle no feathers and in doing so became less and less authentic and real… To succeed today, big brands like Cheerios need to be in touch with what’s authentic and true about American families.”

He continues: “The traditional approach depicting the old ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family, while offending no one, is not very realistic,”

Not when couples who blend race and/or religion grew from 7 to 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to AP’s Census data.

The question of popularity is no small one for a company that the marketing research firm YouGov included in the “Most Popular Brands of the Year” for 2012. According to AdWeek, Cheerios ranked third, out of all U.S. firms, higher than Google, Lowe’s and Kindle.

Ultimately, the hubbub may have done exactly what the detractors didn’t want — gained more traction for a product then an advertisement would have ever done, sans controversy. Cheerios executives finally came out in support of their ad, refusing to pull it. They received positive press from almost every major media outlet, and many small ones. And so perhaps the lesson is – brand-conscious markets shouldn’t create controversy, but if they do, make sure it goes viral.

What do you think of the ad? How can businesses walk that line between addressing the changing needs of a changing populace, and not angering others? Is this a unique, one-time problem, or something that brands and businesses wrestle with regularly? What would you have done?​​