A Brief Summary
Earlier this summer Cheerios released a new ad as part of their Heart Healthy Campaign. The advertisement shown on television and uploaded to YouTube featured a married couple with a mom, a dad and their young daughter. The ad contained the same Heart Healthy Campaign messaging as many Cheerio ads have contained; that eating Cheerios can reduce the risk of heart disease. However, what set this ad apart from the others used before was a biracial family that was featured. The mom was white, the dad was black and the daughter was a blend of the two.
Those who identify themselves as being biracial or multiracial have increased from 2000 – 2010 by 28% according to the 2010 Census. Also, biracial families have grown to 9 million strong over the past decade. The Heart Healthy Campaign is targeted towards families and individuals emphasizing that eating Cheerios as part of a heart healthy diet creates a happier, healthier you which benefits you and the overall well-being of the whole family. The campaign has in the past used mixed generation families, families of one ethnicity and even single parent homes to convey their message. However, they have never included a mixed race family before this ad was released. The decision to include a mixed race family within the campaign was not only a decision to showcase the changing face of the American family, but also to symbolize the inclusion of all familial dynamics.
Although many Americans supported the use of a biracial family in the campaign, other individuals expressed hateful and racists comments towards the ad and General Mills in the news and online forums. The ad on YouTube attracted so much attention, both negative and positive, that General Mills felt it necessary to block all users from posting any comments on this video. General Mills took this action mainly to avoid individuals from posting racist and derogatory comments about the ad. Their decision to block all comments, however, drew more attention and criticism to the campaign.
A PR Perspective
This campaign provided an example of crisis and dialogic (two-way) communication.
General Mills executed these steps before, during and after the crisis:
- Anticipated Crises
- Identified the Crisis Communications Team
- Identified and Trained Spokespersons
- Established Notification and Monitoring Systems
- Identified and Knew Stakeholders
- Assessed the Situation
- Finalized and Adapted Key Messages
Instead of shying away from the issue, General Mills stood on its position of using a biracial family. It chose to confront the issue and engaged in an educated conversation about their decision to include a biracial family in their campaign ads. General Mills spoke on behalf of themselves as a corporation instead of relying on an outside PR representative. While using an outside representative may not hinder the support of an organization, by speaking on behalf of themselves, this further solidified and gained trust with their audience. This also provided a stronger positive image with their targeted audience of a company that cares for the nurturing of every family.
The Cheerios Heart Healthy Campaign contains many strengths. The campaign seeks to understand and to know their growing audience. The ads featured in this campaign are inclusive, not exclusive. Unlike many corporations, General Mills was not intimidated by using a biracial family and stood firm in their decisions. During this crisis, General Mills were quick to speak out against those who opposed their message and instead attempted to focus on the positive aspects of the biracial ad for the campaign.
Areas of Opportunity
This campaign also had its weaknesses. Although General Mills was quick to address the negative feedback, they might not have fully understood the still tense race relations within this country. By stepping out of the “safe” advertising mold, they inserted themselves into a complex debate on racial issues. And although they engaged with the media about their seemingly controversial decision, they should have continued to keep the dialogue open. Instead of blocking the thoughts and speech that they hated, they could have created a safe place on their site to engage the public. To capitalize on the dialogue, they needed to create a learning and informational environment where people can learn about the growing dynamics of a biracial community, issues that they may face, etc.
Suggestions for Improvement
This campaign can improve in a few ways. General Mills should feel encouraged by the support of using the biracial family and the dialogue that followed about their decision. Continuing to use more diverse families within their strategic development of their tactics will increase their demographic audience and increase sales. They should also continue to strengthen their focus on heart health. Do not let racial issue distract from the overall goal of persuading the audience of Cheerios keeping a family happy and healthy.
As biracial families and individuals begin to increase, companies have the option to include these changing dynamics within their messaging or choose to ignore their growing demographic. What can we do as PR professionals to encourage organizations to break the mold and to take a risk by communicating with this demographic? How can we as practitioners prepare them for the conversation that will ultimately follow such a decision? Maybe we should be listening to these kids. They seem to have all the answers for how we should handle such situations.