Marketers are quickly becoming societal change agents, fostering recognition of gay rights and racial tolerance. Brands such as Cheerios cereal and Chobani greek yogurt, for example, celebrate social change, tolerance and progressive values in America. How did the industry evolve from creating ads that promoted stereotyped white females in laundry rooms obsessing over “Ring Around the Collar” to producing campaigns that explode stigma and encourage acceptance of racial and sexual minorities that borders on a cultural revolution?
General Mills honored mixed-race families and biracial children in its path-breaking Cheerios “Gracie” ad from Saatchi and Saatchi. Then there’s the Chevy TV spots from agency Commonwealth, airing during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sochi (take that, Vladimir Putin), that offer this voiceover: “while what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what a family looks like has.” Similarly yogurt marketer Chobani, a sponsor of the US Olympic team, tweeted out an image of yogurt cups in the color of the Pride rainbow. The Twitter pic featured an unambiguous message, “Naturally Powering Everyone,” as an explicit criticism of Russia’s anti-gay legislation.
Marketers know that tackling sacred cows is not without risk: General Mills, Oreo, Google and other brands have been targets of protests for creating imagery that expresses corporate tolerance toward GLBT and racial issues. In fact, Oreo’s “Pride Cookie” generated an astonishing 23,000 comments online in the first 24 hours, some of which were negative. General Mills was forced to disable comments on YouTube due to offensive comments made about its interracial Cheerios ad. Still, the products created by these mainstream marketers are so ubiquitous in supermarkets that a boycott by the American Family Association risks condemning its conservative members to empty kitchens and the possibility of mass malnourishment.
It’s worth noting that brands from Time Warner and Home Depot to Ford, CVS and American Airlines have marketed their products for years directly to the African-American and multicultural communities – but the images of black family life were primarily seen by African-Americans in magazines like Ebony, Essence and Jet. Similarly, such brands as Kraft, Toyota, Miller Brewing, Campbell Soup, Google, Absolut, Amtrak, Lexus and Motorola have marketed to the gay community for years – but the ads in magazines Out, The Advocate and Instinct went unseen by most heterosexual consumers.
(Source: Bloomberg Technology)
As worthy as those campaigns were in sending the message out that “as marketers, we recognize that you exist,” the new wave of socially conscious advertising like General Mills’ Cheerios spot are aimed squarely at the general public. These ads deliver a more nuanced message – as if to say, “we recognize that your neighbors, your relatives, your friends are not all white, middle-class heterosexuals, and we welcome them, and you, as our customers.”
Why is this revolution in marketing happening now? It helps that many chief marketing officers at Fortune 500 companies whom we know are gay, African-American, Hispanic and/or female.
Also, the economics of hidden consumers – the African-American market with its $1 trillion dollars in buying power and the GLBT community with its $835 billion in buying impact – made it inevitable that marketers would refuse to leave billions of dollars in consumer spending on the table, no matter how much the American Family Association squawks.
Plus, Gallup polls show that consumers have more positive sentiment toward gay and lesbian rights than ever before.
What unites these campaigns is the subversive nature of its persuasion, which is far better than subliminal – it’s ordinary. What’s most remarkable about the gay couples displayed in Chevrolet’s TV spots is that they are shown as unremarkable and average. That the interracial couple in General Mills’ Cheerios spot is treated not with a drum-roll and a thunderclap, but viewed through the calm ordinariness of an everyday family munching Cheerios around a kitchen table – the only extraordinary thing being our reaction to a biracial scene that’s “normal” in millions of homes.
This transformation of fear of the strange into acceptance of a new normal is something that marketing knows precisely how to do. In their deliberate ordinariness, these campaigns from General Mills, Oreo, Chobani, Google and other advertisers are utterly exceptional. Our society, thankfully, will never be the same.