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Race and Beyond: Cereal Ad Gives Us All Something to Chew On

SOURCE: AP/Danny Johnston

Boxes of Cheerios cereal are displayed at a Little Rock, Arkansas, grocery store.

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If you haven’t seen the Cheerios ad, check it out.

The ad is called “Just Checking” and opens on a cute, frizzy-haired, and brown-skinned girl asking her mother about the heart-healthy benefits of eating oat-bran cereal. It then cuts to her sleeping dad, who wakes to find his chest covered with the little “O’s.” By the way, in this commercial family, Mom is white and Dad is black.

The commercial’s obvious point is that the little girl wants her dad to be healthy, and eating Cheerios will help keep him that way. But a less-than-subtle point is also being made: A modern-day family is a far cry from what used to be commercial fare. I never imagined seeing anything like the “Just Checking” commercial when I was growing up and watching 1960s-era television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.”

Given this contemporary commercial is artfully produced and broadcast, General Mills executives know what they’re doing. They’re chasing a growing market of Americans who self-identify as mixed-race. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that their number swelled 32 percent to 9 million people between 2000 and 2010.

And it will continue to grow as interracial marriages become more and more the norm in America. Love knows no boundaries, and the acceptance of mixed-race couples is a testament to progressive social change and evolving attitudes toward race, sex, and marriage. Indeed, it was less than 50 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark civil-rights decision in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, invalidating antimiscegenation laws across the nation.

We have come a long way since Richard Perry Loving, a white Virginian, risked jail time—and very possibly vigilante death—for clandestinely marrying Mildred Delores Jeter, a woman who claimed black and Native American heritage. At this moment in our nation’s history, the president is a mixed-race man, the product of a black Kenyan man and a white woman from Kansas. On television, popular shows such as “Scandal” and “Parenthood” feature interracial liaisons and parenting. For the most part, relatively few people are shocked by the sight of interracial couples strolling hand-in-hand at most every shopping mall or seated in darkened movie theaters.

These modern attitudes even hold true in the heart of conservative America, where last Saturday, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) son, Jack McCain, married Renee Swift, a black woman and a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Us Weekly called it “an All-American wedding!” Also, last month House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) witnessed his daughter, Lindsay Marie Boehner, marry Dominic Lakhan, a black, Jamaican-born construction worker.

So when a consumer-goods manufacturer uses an interracial couple as a mainstream marketing tool, you can bet that the corporation is on to something. Big businesses such as General Mills, the Minneapolis-based food company that makes Cheerios, rarely venture too far out on reedy limbs. They’re in business to make profits, not to make social statements. If nothing else, this commercial is another sign of the times, proof that demographic change will alter our understanding of who and what is America.

Unfortunately, that scares the bejesus out of some closed-minded Internet trolls. Alarmed by the depiction of an interracial couple in a wholesome food commercial, racists swamped the commercial’s YouTube site last week with nasty comments. According to a post on the Adweek website, the YouTube video’s comments section “devolved into an endless flame war, with references to Nazis, ‘troglodytes’ and ‘racial genocide’” forcing the sponsors to disable comments altogether.

That, in turn, led to greater palaver about the commercial on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media outlets. As of this writing, late Monday afternoon, more than 1.7 million people had viewed the YouTube video, with 22,000 likes and about 1,500 dislikes.

Clearly, the Cheerios folks are delighted. Camille Gibson, the vice president of marketing for Cheerios, said in a statement that the company was proud of the commercial. “Consumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad,” she said in the news release. “At Cheerios we know there are many kinds of families, and we celebrate them all.”

As well, should we all. Who wants to be on the wrong side of love—no matter what color its package?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here