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Cheerios mixed-race ad to stay, company not deterred by hate

A new ad for Cheerios, featuring a mixed-race family and biracial daughter, caused YouTube commenters to flood the commercial's page with bigotry. But Cheerios won't be taking down the ad, the company says. 

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With millions of ad dollars at stake, how seriously do big companies like Cheerios take racist backlashes? Very, said Allen Adamson, managing director of the branding firm Landor Associates, but caving to critics is just as dangerous to a company as large as Cheerios.

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"Advertisers for many years always took the safe route, which was to try to ruffle no feathers and in doing so became less and less authentic and real," he said. "To succeed today, big brands like Cheerios need to be in touch with what's authentic and true about American families."

Those families include married couples of different races and ethnicities who grew by 28 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, from 7 percent to 10 percent, Census data shows.

"The traditional approach depicting the old 'Leave it to Beaver' family, while offending no one, is not very realistic," Adamson said.

In addition to Cheerios, General Mills makes Betty Crocker cake mixes, Pillsbury refrigerated dough and Yoplait yogurts. The ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which created the ad, referred a call from The Associated Press to its client.

Actor Charles Malik Whitfield, who portrays the sleeping dad in the spot, thanked supporters of the ad and sees an opportunity for opening a dialogue with its detractors.

"Let's not pretend racism doesn't exist. Let's not pretend that we've come so far. Let's be conscious of and appreciate the noise, and the negativity, because there's so much work to be done," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

Cheerios is not the first brand to show a black and white couple with a biracial child. A TV commercial for Blockbuster recently featured a white mom, black dad and biracial son enjoying a rental on the couch. As far back as 2009, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and its "spread a little joy" campaign had a black man and white woman (no wedding bands) enjoying a bagel breakfast in bed.

In another along those lines, a black woman is shown kissing a white man as the two stir a bit of Philadelphia Cream Cheese into a pasta sauce and kiss.

Nina Barton, senior marketing director for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Glenview, Ill., said in an email that the 140-year-old brand also believes its advertising "should reflect what American families look like today."

She added: "While we did receive comments, both positive and negative, in response to our national campaign, it didn't influence our future casting decisions."

In the case of Cheerios, Ries said, the benefits outweigh the risks.

"It's important for brands to take risks in line with what their brand is about," she said. "In this case Cheerios is the first food of children everywhere."

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