By Chris Hoenig
A television ad for the iconic breakfast brand Cheerios featuring an interracial couple and their biracial daughter sparked an ugly rash of racist and insensitive comments.
The video touting Cheerios' heart-healthy qualities and the brand's place at the wholesome American breakfast table, which aired and was posted online last week, quickly drew more than 2 million hits on YouTube. But the site was forced to disable viewer comments after responses included references to Nazis and racial genocide. "We are a family brand and not all of the comments were family-friendly," Camille Gibson, Vice President of Marketing for cereal maker General Mills, told USA Today. The racist comments on the ad were also spread virally across the web, including on the social website Reddit.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman told DiversityInc exclusively that the backlash is disappointing, but not surprising. "Unfortunately, with all of its positive benefits to society, the Internet also has a dark side, which rears its ugly head when anonymous users use it to spread overtly racist messages," Foxman, co-author of Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet, wrote in an email. "While disabling comments should only be a measure of last resort when a site is overwhelmed by hateful or racist messages, in this case, YouTube was right to take action so as to prevent some users from distorting the positive message of this ad."
General Mills, No. 26 in the 2013 DiversityInc Top 50, did find support from consumers on its Facebook page. "My husband and I are an interracial couple. He is African-American and I am white. I was so impressed with the way Cheerios stood up to those racist comments and stated that it would absolutely not withdraw its new commercial," Tanya Roberson wrote. "I will definitely remember this and intend to be a LOYAL Cheerios customer. Thank you, Cheerios, for doing the right thing!"
The ad has gained more than 6,000 likes and 1,500 shares on Facebook, but that is just a fraction of the more than 1 million likes the Cheerios page has. In response, the company released additional comments to the media stating that tumult over the ad will not affect future casting or branding opportunities featuring multicultural families. "There are many kinds of families, and Cheerios just wants to celebrate them all," said Meredith Tutterow, Associate Marketing Director for Cheerios and Multigrain Cheerios.
This is just the latest ad to stir controversy. Last month, jcpenney drew headlines after people noticed that the billboard image of a tea kettle it sold resembled Adolf Hitler.
Officials at jcpenney, No. 50 in the DiversityInc Top 50, said the resemblance was unintentional, tweeting, "If we had designed it to look like something, we would have gone with a snowman or something fun." The $40 kettle was later pulled from the jcpenney website and the billboard was taken down. The additional online attention, though, did manage to help the brand completely sell out of its inventory in just a weekend.