David Duprey, Associated Press
NEW YORK — A mom sits at her kitchen table when her grade schooler saunters up with a big box of Cheerios.
"Mom," says the girl. "Dad told me Cheerios is good for your heart. Is that true?"
Cut to dad waking from a nap on the living room couch with a pile of Cheerios on his chest (where his heart is) crunchily cascading to the floor.
The message is in line with the company's Heart Healthy campaign, except this 30-second ad features a black dad, white mom and biracial child and produced enough vitriol on YouTube last week that Cheerios requested the comments section be turned off.
This week, the company is standing by the fictitious family, which reflects a black-white racial mix uncommon in commercials today, especially in ads on TV, at a time when interracial and interethnic couples are on the rise in real life, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, brand strategists and marketing consultants.
"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.
Camille Gibson, vice president of marketing for Cheerios, said it's the first time the ad campaign that focuses on family moments has featured an interracial couple, with General Mills Inc. casting the actors to reflect the changing U.S. population.
"We felt like we were reflecting an American family," Gibson said.
As a large company, Minneapolis-based General Mills is used to getting some degree of negative feedback and wasn't surprised by the comments on YouTube, she said, but it was the first time the company requested the site turn the comments section off because of the vitriol.
Another site, Reddit, filtered out negative comments on a thread started with a comment in support of the ad. The site left Cheerios defenders' remarks online.
The national ad will continue running as scheduled for several more months and Cheerios isn't planning any changes, Gibson said. She declined to say whether the campaign would feature interracial ads going forward.
Overall, Gibson said, the feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive: "Consumers are actually responding very positively to the ad."
With millions of ad dollars at stake, how seriously do big companies like Cheerios take racist backlashes? Very, said Allen Adamson, managing director of the branding firm Landor Associates, but caving to critics is just as dangerous to a company as large as Cheerios.
"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," he said. "To succeed today, big brands like Cheerios need to be in touch with what's authentic and true about American families."
Those families include married couples of different races and ethnicities who grew by 28 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, from 7 percent to 10 percent, Census data shows.
"The traditional approach depicting the old 'Leave it to Beaver' family, while offending no one, is not very realistic," Adamson said.
In addition to Cheerios, General Mills makes Betty Crocker cake mixes, Pillsbury refrigerated dough and Yoplait yogurts. The ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which created the ad, referred a call from The Associated Press to its client.
Actor Charles Malik Whitfield, who portrays the sleeping dad in the spot, thanked supporters of the ad and sees an opportunity for opening a dialogue with its detractors.
"Let's not pretend racism doesn't exist. Let's not pretend that we've come so far. Let's be conscious of and appreciate the noise, and the negativity, because there's so much work to be done," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
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.
In another along those lines, a black woman is shown kissing a white man as the two stir a bit of Philadelphia Cream Cheese into a pasta sauce and kiss.
Nina Barton, senior marketing director for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Glenview, Ill., said in an email that the 140-year-old brand also believes its advertising "should reflect what American families look like today."
She added: "While we did receive comments, both positive and negative, in response to our national campaign, it didn't influence our future casting decisions."
In the case of Cheerios, Ries said, the benefits outweigh the risks.
"It's important for brands to take risks in line with what their brand is about," she said. "In this case Cheerios is the first food of children everywhere."
AP Food Industry Writer Candice Choi in New York contributed to this report.
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