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Ads are catching up with the reality of American life

March 12, 2014

While it's been clear for some time that the make-up of American households is changing in terms of age, race, religion (or not), sexual orientation, etc., the faces in commercials have remained more "Father Knows Best" than "Modern Family." That is beginning to change as ads from companies such as Coca-Cola, Gap, General Mills, Procter & Gamble and others reflect the diverse reality of modern America. The question now becomes whether American consumers are ready for the changes they see in commercials and if these new spots will translate into sales for brand marketers and retailers.

Last year, General Mills got a huge amount of attention when it ran a Cheerios spot depicting an interracial couple and their daughter. While the spot was extremely popular, the comments section of YouTube needed to be closed down due to the racist remarks.

More recently, a Coca-Cola spot during the Sochi Olympics, which showed Americans of various descents singing "America The Beautiful" in their original languages, prompted calls for a boycott and put the nation's xenophobia on display for the world to see.

Both General Mills and Coca-Cola refused to capitulate to the haters and it seems as though advertisers are becoming more willing to take risks with the belief there will be a top and bottom line payoff.

[Image: Honey Maid

The most recent example is a new spot from Honey Maid. The "This is Wholesome" 30-second commercial from the graham cracker brand features interracial couples with their kids, a gay couple feeding their baby with a bottle, and a Millennial couple with a father whose body is covered in tattoos (a Robert Young/Jim Anderson look-alike he's not). It also includes a message about the ingredients, including the product being made with whole grains and sans high fructose corn syrup.


Discussion Questions:

Are American consumers ready for the changes they see in commercials? Will these new spots reflecting the nation's diversity translate into sales for brand marketers and retailers?

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Instant Poll:

Would you advise American advertisers to include more diversity in their messages?


I just saw a demographer last night talk about how in 1960, the US was 85% white, and in 2060, it will fall to 43%. So when you say "American consumers," I have to ask, which ones are you talking about? The ones whose families increasingly look like the ones portrayed in the ads? Because I have to think they're more than ready.

As for the other set of American consumers, the ones who have been targeted and catered to for the 250 years that our country has existed, I guess the answer is, ready or not, here it comes.

More importantly, and this was a point raised by said demographer (he was on The Daily Show if you want to watch the interview), Millennials (generally speaking) are very receptive to these kinds of messages, because they are sort of by default, the most diverse generation that currently has spending power.

As to whether this will translate into sales, I think that marketers need to be careful not to make diversity the point so much as just a natural part of the ad. I would contrast the Honey Maid ad with the Cheerios ad that started this discussion in the first place - the one showing an interracial couple responding to their uber-cute and precocious daughter's concern for their health. The point of that ad was not diversity. Diversity just happened to part of the natural setting.

However, that said, I've also heard it said that millennials are more proactive politically, so maybe the more aggressive message from Honey Maid will resonate with them more than a more background statement like Cheerios. As they transition to the primary spending group, one thing is certain: it will make for interesting times in the marketing world!

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Advertising is always designed to appeal to specific groups of audience. The Fashion and automotive industry have always done ads that appeal to segments knowing certain groups may not be receptive to the message. What is changing is that CPG companies are adjusting their ads to include diversity that 10 years ago would have been much more controversial. I think these new spots initially could be a an initial differentiation for the brand.

As more CPG companies realize communicating diversity is just part of broad appeal, and people won't notice the diversity. I have to admit, I didn't even notice the Cheerios ad race discussion until it was brought up in an article.

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Kenneth Leung, Director of Enterprise Industry Marketing, Avaya

Tough topic because ads and TV shows like "Modern Family" are so far from the reality of life that they are very funny.

America is a big space and there are many types of people that are not fed and tuned by TV or the syndicated news world. They have different ideas, opinions, and values. Ad companies are trying to play the edge of the news and ride on topics that are very touchy with some people and create more noise for their ads with other people. They crave attention.

Here's some examples. I have many friends that are gay. They look at this marriage "joke" on "Modern Family" and call it ridiculous. Many of them will NEVER marry. They already have great relationships that are for life and just want the legal gains of their partnership. They are normal and say - why waste the money on a wedding? (Tried to get my daughter to listen and go to Vegas...oh, slipping off topic....)

I ride motorcycles. I have loads of friends across the USA that would LOVE to get rid of the many tattoos that they have. They mention all the TV shows with the tattoo art overloads. They consider it a joke to see how it is promoted.

We are a diverse nation and retailers need to consider this, but we are also a nation that needs to sometimes think in our own ways and not think in the way that ads, the web, TV, and other mediums want us to think.

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Tom Redd, Global Vice President, Strategic Communications, SAP Global Retail Business Unit

As we've seen from elections for some time, America is indeed polarized along idealogical lines. The always-on media news cycles reinforce this incessantly, and the effect of "which side are you on" does tend to get applied to anything from TV shows to music to brand messaging.

Some brands unwittingly step into mine fields. But, one would think, the Coca-Cola "America The Beautiful" debate was likely an example of a brand knowing what they were getting into and embracing their message.

I think what many brands will do is to steer clear of diverse or "controversial" spots for TV, while applying more diverse messaging to emerging platforms like online video, social media, and mobile. These can certainly open up more ways to target types of media, while also allowing for experimenting with consumer reaction and sentiment.

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Matt Schmitt, President, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, Reflect

Be very careful about referring to customers who wish to maintain traditional values as "haters." You'll lose far more customers than the ones you may gain by portraying the US as a country consisting of divergent and disparate cultures. Remember this country is founded upon the principle "e pluribus unum."


I believe the problem is not with Americans, but with Madison Ave. for lack of diversity within their ad agencies. To cite trolls on YouTube while ignoring the hiring practices and stereotypes perpetuated by Madison Ave. is unfair. Thankfully it is the brands pressuring the ad agencies and I had to call out ad agencies on their lack of diversity working at brands. It's the ad agencies that have work to do.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

Most are, but some aren't. Companies have to make the decision for themselves as to whether commercials make sense for them.

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Bill Davis, Director, MB&G Consulting

The real joke is not "Modern Family," which has a big tongue in cheek, but that people took "Father Knows Best" seriously. It was perhaps farther from reality than "Modern Family."

Coca Cola's rendition of "America the Beautiful" is perhaps the most American and beautiful rendition of this anthem I have ever heard. This is America now and will only be more so in the future. There is no downside to these new images. Those who reject them will every day be a smaller and smaller segment of the population.

Why advertise to that "Father Knows Best Family" that represents, at best, 23% of the the families today (2011) , and continues to decline?

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

To begin with, advertisers need to understand their target market, not how to send a social message. Consumers don't care about very small minority segments of the population. Just what percentage of the households is gay with children? What percentage of the households are mixed race? Neither is likely to approach one percent.

Yes, the household is changing, why not follow the facts? The one person household is for time saving products or single serve meals. What about the multi-generational household which has been exploding since the recession.

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W. Frank Dell II, CMC, President, Dellmart & Company

Not all American consumers are ready to accept the changes in commercials, but at this stage those "haters" referenced in the article will never change their perspective. I also want to point out that the "traditional" values the "haters" champion are usually exclusive, xenophobic and extreme -- not a desired psychographic target. Moreover, as Coke, GAP, and General Mills found out, these vocal "haters" don't have economic power.

Sales and brand loyalty will only grow when communication is inclusive. It's not the first time a fringe group gets upset about commercial casting, and it will certainly not be the last.

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Carlos Arámbula, VP Hispanic Marketing, R&R Partners, MarcasUSA LLC

This topic falls more and more every day into the "so what?" category. There will always be people more comfortable with uniformity over diversity - but they are increasingly in the minority. Each marketing message must be crafted with that brand's authentic DNA - the people shown engaging with the product should be part of the message and resonate with the target audience.

Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

Advertising's purpose is to sell product. Any interference, by attempting to "make statements" is a dereliction of someone's responsibility. Unless, of course, the statement itself sells more product. But, my experience is that most statements don't; they just get in the way. Frankly, I don't think most people care. The issue of diversity is driven by those who think they're diverse - most everyone else just wants to get on with life. Diversity is not unique to American life; it's an integral part of the fabric of our life.

One other point; the idea that we weren't diverse in 1960 is incorrect. The diversity was driven by the mostly European countries from which our parents and grandparents emigrated. In my small community there were Russians, Italians, Hungarians, Polish, Czechs, Germans, etc. I was well aware that many of friends' families were very different than my family from Italy. Our cultures and points of view were different - we even looked different. Today, we're lumped together - which is fine. But don't think that we weren't aware of diverse culture from whence we came. Diversity has always been a hallmark of the United States.

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Christopher P. Ramey, President, Affluent Insights

On behalf of AHAA: The Voice of Hispanic Marketing, we applaud the brands that are celebrating diversity and portraying modern families reflective of today's mainstream America. As the only trade association representing the entire Hispanic marketing & communications industry, we champion the image of Hispanics in corporate boardrooms on a daily basis, as Hispanics are critical to the growth strategies of brands who wish to remain relevant amidst continuously changing demographics.

Only recently have the majority of companies realized that they must place multicultural segments at the center of growth strategies, rather than as an add-on or parallel effort. To that end, we are currently collaborating with various ethnic and general market marketing associations to seek alignment on a Total Market definition and criteria, both from an agency and client perspective, which we will unveil at our Annual "Thinking Under the Influence" Conference April 28-30 in Miami.

We also are working with the Latino Donor Collaborative (LDC), a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding accurate portrayals of Latinos by reshaping the perception of Latinos as part of the new American mainstream. Together, we are undertaking an initiative, the First Annual Latino Brand Award, to help consumer-oriented advertisers acquire a more accurate understanding of the Hispanic market that is growing in numbers, wealth, and life-cycle value — and to combat negative stereotyping in English advertising, mass market programming content and in the media. For more information on both initiatives, please visit http://ahaa.org.

Corporate America is paying attention. Multicultural consumers are critical to growth. By leading the efforts in identifying effective Total Market implementations and championing positive and realistic portrayals of Latinos in the media, we hope more brands step up to the plate with creative, holistic campaigns and culturally-appropriate images and messaging.

Aldo Quevedo, Principal/Creative Director, Richards/Lerma

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