Lisa Robbin Young

Cheerios & Howard Stern: What You Can Learn About Your True Voice

[Note: This isn't a topic I get to blog about much, because, well, my skin color is usually irrelevant to the work I'm doing in the world (funny how that works, huh?). I've been very fortunate that the bulk of the racist remarks I've dealt with in my life stemmed from ignorant classmates during my school days. There was that one dumb co-worker, but I'll just chalk that up to his old age and inability to grasp multi-ethnicity. Fortunately, he's part of a dying breed, and a relic of a by-gone era, that hopefully never returns.]

Growing up as a multi-racial kid in a blended family wasn't easy.

I was called all kinds of names every day on the school bus. My favorite?

Zebra. The black kids thought I was "too white to be black" and the white kids thought "I was too black to be white". It was the one term they could all agree on.

As a "Zebra" I was delightfully different (okay, it wasn't so delightful then, but I digress). Able to embrace both my white-ness and my black-ness - regardless of how derogatory the term was meant to be. It was certainly better than "honkey" or that "n" word that still floats around in certain circles.

So imagine my delight (and my surprise) when I found this Cheerios commercial (hat tip to my pal Joe Dennis for sharing this with me):

Cheerios (and General Mills, for that matter) could have easily portrayed this with a homogeneous cast. Typically, we would see a charming little white girl running up to her mom and precociously pouring the box of cereal over the heart of her white dad. As an alternative, we might have tuned into B.E.T. and seen this same charming commercial recreated with black actors. Instead, Cheerios opted to portray what they considered to be "an American family".

But then, of course, the story gets mucky. There was so much backlash at this interracial portrayal that Cheerios opted to turn the comments off on their YouTube channel.

Really, people? It's a commercial for heaven's sake. About cereal. How much derision could we possibly stir up?

Some folks kids, I tell ya...

Fear leads us to consider the unthinkable...

The True Voice of Cheerios targets the "typical" American family. According to the census data, "married couples of different races and ethnicities... grew by 28 percent in the decade between 2000 and 2010, from 7 percent to 10 percent."

While 10% of America's married population doesn't seem like a big deal (there are roughly 314 million people in this country), it represents a growing trend. And "White" persons not of another ethnic origin make up roughly 64% of the entire population. So it makes sense for Cheerios to reflect that in their marketing and advertising. Sure, it would be "safer" for General Mills and their subsidiary companies to stick to the "traditional" mono-racial family status, but safety isn't always a good business bet.

Plus, there's the added savings of only shooting ONE video for all networks, instead of creating two commercials (or heaven forbid NOT doing two commercials and offending an entire racial group).

A branding agency director quoted in the above-referenced article said "The traditional approach depicting the old 'Leave it to Beaver' family, while offending no one, is not very realistic."

As a product of a multi-racial family, I couldn't agree more. In fact, the thought "What took you so long?" comes to mind.

Recognize the trends of your right audience - and capitalize on them

Shows like "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Finding Your Roots" have been pointing out for years that we're more of a melting pot than we care to admit. How many black folks have denied their white ancestry ("I'm Native American! Really!"), and likewise how many white folks turn a blind eye to their "passing" ancestors?

But fear is fear is fear, and that which we do not seek to understand only serves to fuel that fear.

So let's turn this into a learning experience that helps YOU confidently connect your True Voice to your right audience, shall we?

Don't be afraid to speak your truth

Cheerios recognized the potential for backlash with a multi-racial ad, and chose to run it anyway. They're not the first (Blockbuster and Philadelphia Cream Cheese have run interracial ads before). They won't be the last , but they're the latest company to stand in the gap for a global truth that a lot of people don't want to see.

According to early reports, Cheerios consumers are actually responding positively to the ads. In fact, one person on my facebook wall said she was adding Cheerios to her shopping list because of the ad. This kind of polarization is exactly what goes into creating a strong brand.

As I paraphrase both Chaplain Peter Marshall and Malcolm X: in business, you've got to stand for something, or your "market" will fall for anything. Cheerios calculated the million-dollar costs of running an ad campaign like this. They chose to draw a line in the sand, expecting that some people would speak out. They also had confidence that their true fans would love them even more for it. Their detractors were never in their target market to begin with.

It's smart economics.  Cheerios can be more profitable if they cut away people that don't resonate with their brand values, while at the same time drawing in more of their right audience. Raving cereal fans, anyone?

What is the truth of your True Voice? What needs to be said, but you're not saying it because you're playing it safe?

It takes practice to share your True Voice - so get to it!

Howard Stern, that raucous, oft-fined radio personality didn't begin that way. According to Wikipedia, he wasn't even sure of his talent. He spent four years as a "regular" DJ (even in a job that requested a 'wild, fun morning guy') before coming to Detroit and taking the job that ultimately led to the shaping of his illustrious radio career.

It takes time to hone your message (or as Stern said "strip down all the ego...and be totally honest"). It takes courage to be "risky" like Cheerios (and Stern and others). Some people will hate you for it. Remember that your message isn't for those people. As my son, the budding rapper, would say...

"Ignore the haters. Haters gonna hate."

You'll live in a constant state of anxiety if you keep wearing the mask of The Pretender. You weren't put on this rock to be anyone other than yourself. Sure, there are times when we need to learn a little tact or diplomacy, but even Howard Stern funds a scholarship at the university from which he graduated Magna Cum Laude. And Cheerios continually donates product, cash, and other items to support our military, and other organizations throughout the world.

In short, Cheerios puts its money where its mouth is. Not only is that a polarizing position for a company, it's good business sense, too.

What are you doing to spread your message to your right people?

Get 'em talking... about you

Regardless of how all the backlash turns out, Cheerios is getting their 15 minutes, and the stock of General Mills doesn't seem to be any worse for the wear. People are talking about cereal... cereal people! And not even the fancy, sugar-coated stuff with prizes inside. We're talking about the boring, traditional, heart-healthy Cheerios that my family's been snacking on since I was a toddler.

While you may not be as brazen as Sir Richard Branson, there are still things that you are uniquely qualified to stand up for and shout about.

What are you doing to get more people talking about you and your great work in the world?




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