In 1955, Mary Alexander became the first African-American woman to appear in a Coca-Cola print advertisement. In 1963, a well-dressed, professional-looking African-American man appeared in an ad for New York Telephone Co. It was the first advertisement of its kind to appear in a general publication.
In 1971, Coke first ran its iconic “hilltop” ad, featuring people of various ethnicities singing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” together while holding bottles of Coca-Cola.
At the time, these ads broke racial barriers, and today, advertisers again are reflecting a more diverse society by portraying gays and lesbians as well as inter-racial couples.
Recently, one of the largest food brands, Nabisco, released a 30-second spot for Honey Maid graham cracker snacks. The commercial opens with a softly lit, close-up of a baby being cuddled and bottle-fed by two gay dads, and continues with a tattooed, faux-hawked dad tossing snacks into his mouth to his daughter’s giddy laughter. Also featured are a single dad and two sets of biracial parents — all enjoying graham cracker snacks with their kids. Titled “This is Wholesome,” the spot has more than seven million views to date on YouTube.
But not everybody welcomed these wholesome families.
The conservative group, One Million Moms, expressed outrage on its website and called for a boycott Mondelez International, Nabisco’s parent company. Zeroing in on the gay dads, they described the ad as “an attempt to normalize sin.”
Meanwhile, an Adweek “Ad of the Day” feature lauded Honey Maid and its agency for waking up “to the realization that inclusiveness can be a good thing. Or even a great thing.”
Honey Maid joins Cheerios, Coca Cola, Chevrolet — and now NBC’s Modern Family — in creating media that portrays multi-level diversity that sparks huge response.
So why the outrage?
Because mainstream brands are increasingly depicting a more realistic reflection of “us” than we are accustomed to seeing in media. And for some Americans, it is more diversity than they see in their own lives.
More importantly, these brands historically have defined and idealized what “American” and “family” mean. According to professors Russell Belk and Richard Pollay’s article, “Images of Ourselves: The Good Life in 20th Century Advertising,” imagery in advertising offers the possibility of a fabricated and perfected self or “presents a picture of the way we would like to see ourselves.”
And while that picture may be changing for many of us, not all Americans are ready to celebrate the diversity being championed by advertising and network media.
In May 2013, General Mills’ brand, Cheerios, featured a biracial couple and their daughter in a spot titled “Just Checking” that sparked so much racist commentary on YouTube, the comment section was disabled.
Despite this response, Cheerios featured the family again, this time at the cost of $4 million for 30 seconds during this year’s Super Bowl.
During the same Super Bowl, Coca-Cola ran “It’s Beautiful” featuring the song “America the Beautiful” sung in seven languages. It caused such an avalanche of outrage via social media that many viewers didn’t notice the spot also featured the first gay couple in a Super Bowl commercial.
"Including a gay family in this ad is not only a step forward for the advertising industry, but a reflection of the growing majority of Americans who proudly support their LGBT friends, family and neighbors as integral parts of 'America the Beautiful,' " GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said at the time.
Similarly, Chevrolet aired “The New Us” for the Chevy Traverse during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, featuring a montage of many types of families — including gay and biracial.
Even if some viewers are not ready for this shift, the numbers show these new demographics are growing. A 2012 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute reports that more than 111,000 same-sex couples in America are raising children. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18 percent of heterosexual unmarried couples and 21 percent of same-sex unmarried couples are different races.
And as these demographics grow, so too does their spending power. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the U.S. LGBT buying power will soon reach $790 billion.
These brands, their marketing departments and ad agencies continuously research avenues to reach new audiences and new revenue. And generating social response in today’s media equals a big return on investment.
The potential for profit aside, the fact that some of the largest Fortune 500 companies were willing to take a risk and showcase commercials featuring gay and biracial families during two of the most expensive and most widely broadcast sporting events signals a strategic shift toward reflecting a changing society.
Soon, more mainstream brands and advertising will realize that they too must produce imagery and messages that are diverse and global — whether we as a country are ready or not.
Jana C. Perez is an Addy award-winning graphic designer and Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, Graphic Design Program, at Texas Woman’s University. She is a public voices fellow at TWU with The OpEd Project, which strives to increase diverse voices in the media.