Companies Continue to Push Diversity in Commercials Despite Backlash

Whether it's a multi-racial family having a bowl of cereal, or a man proposing to another man, television commercials are pushing the envelope when it comes to diversity.

It's something you've probably already noticed, and something you may have had a strong reaction to. The question is: was your reaction to the commercial good, or was it bad?

Uniformly, advertisers agree that casting the right characters is an indication of how progressive a company is. Unfortunately, diversity can also backfire.

It's a balancing act that advertisers have been trying to perfect for decades.

In 1994, Ikea Home Furnishings came out with a trailblazing commercial. Two men, clearly in a relationship, talking about what they love about the furniture. It was the first national television ad featuring a gay couple. When it aired, Ikea immediately got feedback. There were angry phone calls, organized boycotts, and a store evacuated for a bomb threat.

Fast forward to the past five years and huge marquis companies like travel website Expedia, electronic commerce giant Amazon and credit card company MasterCard all have ads featuring gay couples.

"If you've got a product that appeals to positively everybody, why would you shrink your audience by putting up a singular kind of talent?" said Erik Radle, CEO of the Miller Ad Agency. He says commercials that promote inclusivity can bring in new customers.

From their Dallas-based office, he said 75% of their ads feature diversity.

"I think this is one of those times where capitalism can be a great vehicle for social construct or social change, and in doing so, have advertising lead society."

But following that lead can take time. Remember this ad from 2013? Cheerios cast a black dad, a white mom, and their interracial daughter.

When General Mills uploaded it to YouTube, the response was so negative they had to disable the comments section. Some of the 4.7 million viewers wrote things like: "More like single parent in the making. Black dad will dip out soon."

While ads featuring diversity have been on the air since the 80s, Radle said there are some combinations that with viewers are less comfortable. He said advertisers who study audience response have realized certain ethnic pairings are more accepted than others.

"If that is an African-American woman and a white man in bed - no reaction-because that's been a palatable social construct much longer than a black man marrying up to a white woman and that's why that ad got the flak that it did," said Radle.

A year after they made the first commercial, Cheerios doubled down. They made the same ad with the same family, and aired it during the Super Bowl.

The online response this time: "Never thought I would see the day that Cheerios has to take a stand...and stand they did."

"If a person sees enough gay couples together or multi-racial couples together over time because of the familiarity, it's accepted," said Radle.

Whether it's acceptance of an interracial family, or a same-sex couple, advertisers say these new ads are a reflection of modern America.

Research seems to support them. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported at least one in six newlyweds is married to a person who is of a different race. As for same-sex marriages, The Gallup Poll's results in 2021 showed at least one in 10 LGBTQ Americans are wed to someone of the same sex.

Editor's Note: This story cited a Gallup poll saying one in 10 Americans were wed to someone of the same sex. It has been corrected above. We regret the error.

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