Is Madison Avenue Leaving America Behind?

Analysis: As the nation's demographics change, older generations struggle with advertisers' more inclusive world-view

Cheerios girl Super Bowl Commercial

ABC’s “Modern Family” is one of the most-loved programs on television. So why are advertisers sparking backlash when they try to adopt its storylines?

Coca-Cola Co. and General Mills have vaguely similar businesses. One makes and distributes sodas, waters, juices and teas, while the other packs grocery-store shelves with cereal, cinnamon rolls and chicken soup. On one thing the two typically agree: Never offend any part of your audience.

And yet, that’s exactly what both have done. How could the owner of the slogan “Have a Coke and a smile” and the owner of the Pillsbury Doughboy do such a thing? With kindness, believe it or not.

General Mills’ Cheerios cereal generated some nasty reaction last Spring when the venerable bowl of oats ran an ad called “Just Checking” featuring an interracial family –a Caucasian mother, an African-American father, and their cute daughter, “Gracie.” Comments on a YouTube page featuring the commercial touched upon racism and Nazis. The company declined to remove the commercial and instead doubled down in the Super Bowl by running a new ad, simply titled “Gracie,” with the same family (who apparently are expecting.)

Coca-Cola also joined what has become a  fray of sorts, using the Super Bowl to run an ad, called “It’s Beautiful,” in which “America the Beautiful” is sung by a multitude of voices, each using a different language. The ad also featured the appearance of a same-sex couple, said to be a first for Super Bowl advertising. Again, some viewers were taken aback, taking to social media to call the ad to task because it put a song meant to celebrate America into words spoken by people hailing from outside the country.

The spots were meant to be inclusive and inviting, depicting a wide range of consumers who might buy either company’s goods. “There are enough empowered folks from these groups who, thankfully, feel freer to express themselves and be who they are, even in the face of ongoing bigotry,” said Ron Bishop,a professor in the department of culture and communication at Drexel University “And they, of course, spend money. Simple cost-benefit analysis, I’m afraid.”

So why the anger? The messages conveyed by both commercials are about as “feel good” as you can get. Coca Cola in particular has a long history of developing ads that call on the world to come together and be happy, as illustrated by its famous 1971 “Hilltop” ad in which a chorale of young people croon about being able to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

“Consider it the death throes of an aging, and increasingly irrelevant, demographic,” said Brian Sheehan, an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and a former ad-agency exec who has worked on marketing for Toyota and Cheerios.

Indeed, the influx of the generation known as “millenials” – people born between 1977 and 1992 as defined by Pew Research – into the ranks of independent consumers has already fostered massive shifts in attitudes about race and sexuality. Commercials, which typically function as a sort of lagging indicator, not a leading one, as advertisers try to follow their customers’ tastes – are simply trying to keep pace.

A December, 2013, report from Pew found that one in five migrants – representing 46 million people – now live in the United States compared with slightly one in six, or 23 million people, in 1990, What’s more, a Pew report from March, 2013, found the public’s views about same-sex marriage had radically changed over the course of the previous decade. According to Pew, polling conducted in 2003 found most 58% of Americans opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and only 33% in favor. Pew’s March survey found 49% of adults nationwide supported same-sex marriage, while 44% opposed.

As the success of “Modern Family” on ABC suggests, one doesn’t necessarily need research to determine that the traditional definition of family has changed. “Cheerios knows there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all. We did not conduct research to guide our casting decision for the family in the “Just Checking” and “Gracie” ads,” said Doug Martin, marketing manager for the cereal, in a statement relayed by email from a General Mills spokesman. “We simply fell in love with this cast, especially Gracie – and so did millions of other Americans. We knew we wanted to bring this family back, and saw the Big Game as a great opportunity to bring America another Cheerios story about family love in a growing family.”

Coca-Cola, too, sees a broader consumer base for its wares. “For centuries America has opened its arms to people of many countries who have helped to build this great nation. ‘It’s Beautiful’ provides a snapshot of the real lives of Americans representing diverse ethnicities, religions, races and families, all found in the United States,” the company said in a statement, adding the commercial forms “a powerful message that spreads optimism, promotes inclusion and celebrates humanity – values that are core to Coca-Cola.”

As younger consumers gain more purchase power, advertisers are likely to continue to court a wider crowd. “The reality is that millennial are mystified by the ethnic and sexual-orientation prejudices that dogged their parents,” said Sheehan, the marketing professor.  “Even the most conservative families now have extended family members or friends who are multiracial, multicultural, or GLBT. Just ask Dick Cheney.”

Those two blue-chip sponsors aren’t alone. Procter & Gamble, one of the largest U.S. advertisers and a marketer whose ways are closely studied, has been running a spot featuring an interracial family. The Caucasian father has lost part of his arm to cancer, and the company’s Swiffer helps make things easier on the clan.

“Is there anything more American than America?” Bob Dylan asked during an eyebrow-raising commercial from Chrysler that ran during the Super Bowl. The answer to Dylan’s query depends on definitions  that are quickly changing.