Bias in a Cereal Box


After a century of delivering bias in a cereal bowl, General Mills has broken new ground, taken the first chip out of the cereal industry’s Berlin Wall of advertising.

Some history provides cultural context. Crank the Time Machine dial back to 1967. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision was issued on June 12 that year, striking down anti-miscegenation laws. (The Lovings had actually married in 1958.) Interracial marriage became legal in all of the United States.

Within a year of Loving, the first scripted interracial kiss quickly followed on television in 1968. In Star Trek’s “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode, powerful humanoids used telekinetic powers to force Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura to engage lips. (A recurrent Star Trek theme was that Captain Kirk would voluntarily mate with any and all other females, human or not.)

Fast forward forty-seven years and through millions of U.S. interracial marriages to reach the 2013 Marketing and Advertising Department of General Mills (GM), the makers of whole grain Cheerios®.i The GM mission statement: “to nourish everyone by making lives healthier, easier and richer.”

Does GM have a Diversity Program? Yes. Their D&I statement?”Diversity plus inclusion equals business value. We connect with our consumers, customers and communities. We reap new ideas and innovation. And we recruit and retain the talent to win now and in the future,” according to Ken Charles, Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion.

The possibility can’t be dismissed that GM’s CDO may have gotten hold of the January 2013 release of the Pew Research Center report, “Intermarriage on the Rise in the US.” Pew’s 2012 report revealed that, “The share of new marriages between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from each other increased to 15.1% in 2010, and the share of all current marriages that are either interracial or interethnic has reached an all-time high of 8.4%.” The 2013 Pew report reiterated the trend both statistically and in narrative, saying, “The upward trend of intermarriage is many decades old.”

Armed with valid market statistics, motivated GM Diversiphiles™ may have agreed ‘to boldly go where no cereal company had gone before.’ Coincident with that report, perhaps driven by its express appetite for business value, the General Mills organization thought outside of the box, broke free from the pack and came out of the cupboard. GM produced and released its first commercial depiction of an interracial marriage just shy of a half-century after legalization by Loving, and after Star Trek producers televised interracial mating from a galaxy far, far away.

General Mills, to its credit, hasn’t done this without real short term cost.

Diversiphobes™ didn’t sugar coat their outrage, retaliating by staging a denial of service attack of sorts, according to ABC News. “The social media blowback of the biracial family got so bad, General Mills decided to disable all of its YouTube comments.”

As portrayed in the media, America’s Diversiphobes™ spewed vitriol while America’s Diversiphiles™ expressed surprise and disappointment over the harsh reaction. Honestly, should it be that shocking? Is it difficult to figure out why it took half a century for GM to make this kind of decision?

General Mills probably cannot lay claim to a newfound regard for the concept of delivering cultural and family values via cereal boxes. No stranger to values transmission, the jealously guarded moral and ethical sanctity of the GM Wheaties®ii brand has sustained the Wheaties® Box as the athlete’s Holy Grail for decades. It is a General Mills powerhouse trademark, delivering nutrition and social values for 75 years, including diversity.

Despite the changes in law, demographic trend, and decades of promotion of Diversity, an implicit loyalty to family racial purity remained the GM advertising standard, and the hallmark of cereal industry marketing since its beginnings. Twentieth Century American cereal-slurping children with box at eye level each morning would have never suspected the existence of interracial families if cereal boxes had been their only source of societal Diversity information. The values message was clear and consistent. Cereal boxes have been a “holy ground” of family race purity until now. Is it any wonder that a segment of the eatership experienced a cognitive cultural paroxysm?

In the same ABC News article, Sajeev Varki, an associate professor of marketing, commented that the social media blowback came from “a small sliver” of society. But could it have been that small sliver of society alone that kept intermarriage off of the cereal boxes for an entire century? Maybe not. Might it have been an even smaller but higher level sliver of society?

General Mills touts its 114 years of uninterrupted increases in shareholder dividends as a standout feature of its legacy. Remember, at GM, “Diversity plus inclusion equals business value.” Market share simply isn’t the whole picture when it comes to driving “business value” nor of what drives the decisions of the marketing department. The ‘taste of General Mills’ may have expanded when it comes to its market segments. But it may be more interesting to watch the taste of General Mills stockholders via NYSE: GIS to get a sense of where that other sliver of society will fall on the matter, both stock price and trading volumes. Time, market share and the ticker tape will tell GM’s consumers and competitors alike whether it was the “right thing to do” from the vantage point of objective business value.

Clearly, these cases represent a gaping disconnect between Marketing/Advertising Departments and Chief Diversity Officers – or do they?

Could CDOs be the secret force behind pushing the Diversity envelope? It’s not clear what involvement GM’s Chief Diversity Officer might have had in the bold decision to stage an assault on the racial purity norm. In another recent marketing Diversity debacle that outraged Diversiphiles™, the Chief Diversity Officer at Pepsico claimed no connection at all with the now infamous “Goat Ad Campaign” at its Mountain Dew Division, called by some “the most racist commercial ever.” Kmart had a similar recent experience when it raised more than merely eyebrows of a million Conservative Christian Mothers for its double entendre campaign on free shipping. Raising right wing hackles, Kmart’s response was devoid of public comment from or about its Office of Diversity’s role as an internal clearinghouse for major advertising campaigns.

Some might hope that Pepsico and Kmart marketing groups were completely unplugged from D&I, possibly the best case scenario for their CDOs who could legitimately say, “I told you so.” If not, a paradox looms large. Diversity’s biggest claim to legitimacy is its direct connection to an organization’s business markets, customers and communities. It is allegedly a primary pillar of the Business Case for Diversity. That puzzler seems almost impossible to reconcile in a positive way. It raises the specter of similar gaping chasms in both process and thinking between D&I and other business functions.

What’s conclusions might we reach?

First, the General Mills marketing decision has at least some basis in 21st century business sense, and indicates a progressive and influential CDO. An eight percent and growing market share represents too much dough to risk leaving on the table. The tradeoff may prove lucrative, especially if the projected demise of the Diversiphobe™ markets by 2050 proves out.

Second, GM has clearly established itself as a social responsibility leader in the industry — despite bringing up the rear 47 years behind the Supreme Court engine on the social reality. An ancient proverb I made up a few years ago: “The caboose also arrives on time.”

Third, the cognitive acuity associated with the fact of having a D&I program and a heightened “Diversity” mindset is, at the very least, suspect at this point, if advertising among Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 is any gauge. Despite General Mills century-long tacit defense of family racial purity in its advertising, it rose to #26 of Diversity Inc.’s “Top 50 Companies for Diversity” well before the release of the multiracial family ad. Pepsico also made Diversity Inc.’s Top 50 list in 2009, along with Kmart in 2001.

And, finally, America still has a way to go to overcome ingrained cultural learning. It’s important to contextualize what the breakfast cereal industry has been tacitly teaching its eatership for a century. Yes, “teaching.” An APA report validates the long-term impact of advertising bias on children.iii

It’s a high probability that the Walmart security guards who recently suspected a white father of kidnapping his three children are among the Cheerios® childhood eatership who now suffer an adult implicit bias. “Joseph and Keana, a biracial couple from Woodbridge, Virginia, say they will never shop at Walmart again after a security guard recently accused Joseph of kidnapping his own children.”

Move over Twinkies. Ironically, Walmart employees, recent Supreme Court plaintiffs themselves, could be among the first Diversiphobes™ to claim “The Cheerios® Defense” in a discrimination lawsuit.

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© 2013 Robert D. Jones/nuClusiv LLC, All Rights Reserved

Contact us to learn more about how to escape the cycle of conflict between Diversiphobes™ and Diversiphiles™ through a CultureNeutral™ Framework.

iCheerios® is a registered trademark of the General Mills

ii Wheaties® is a registered trademark of General Mills

iii Report of the APA Task Force on Advertising and Children, February 20, 2004


Copyright 2013 Robert D. Jones  – All Rights Reserved

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