I'm usually skeptical of advertising. I know companies spend millions of dollars hoping that their body lotion or paper towels or lunch meat will bring me to tears.
But ads are powerful. They're a form of media where we see representations of ourselves and our society, just like on TV shows they interrupt. And it's rare to see people like me—with a black father and a white mother—represented in ads.
Earlier this year, like many other people, I heard about a Cheerios ad, "Just Checking," that featured an interracial family—a white mother, black father and their daughter—before I saw it. I was excited about it, sure, but why I was excited didn't really register until I finally did see it for myself.
Now, I care a lot about food, but the wave of emotions that hit me as I watched the ad had nothing to do with my childhood cereal. In the last several years, I've seen more and more little girls and boys that looked like the ad's main character in grocery stores, shops, playgrounds—but I haven't been seeing them on TV. Having grown up without that representation, myself and other multiracial people can attest to its importance.
The Cheerios ad caused stirred up some racist controversy, leaving many people wondering why interracial relationships still have the ability to alarm 46 years after the Supreme Court struck down laws that banned interracial marriages in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case. Clearly the idea that interracial relationships are not okay runs deeper than we'd like to think.
A half-century isn't enough time to dissolve the well-engrained ideas about race and marriage that were constructed after the Civil War, when miscegenation laws spread across the country "to serve as props for the racial system of slavery, as one more way to distinguish free Whites from slaves," as historian Peggy Pascoe puts it. The idea that mixing of races was unnatural, against God's will, and would lead to biological degradation made miscegenation laws a tool to define what a legitimate family was and thereby maintain white supremacy.
At the time of the Loving v. Virginia decision, seventeen states still had miscegenation laws in place. In fact, it took Alabama until 2000 to officially amend their law. Even more recently, in 2009, a judge in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple.
Meanwhile, according to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of interracial marriage reached all-time high in 2010. In that year, about 15 percent of all new marriages were interracial and 8.4 percent of all existing marriages were interracial.
But films, TV, and advertising haven't caught up to the current racial reality.
The most apparent reason that interracial representation has fallen behind real-world relationships is that while companies try to recognize the country's ever-growing diversity, their definition of "diverse" is actually quite limited. Advertising executive Dianne Allen told The Advocate that "the generally accepted definition in our industry for diversity includes black, white, Asian and Hispanic audiences," adding that insufficient research on the interracial demographic may be barring their incorporation into audiences.
There are, of course, exceptions. In 1989, United Colors of Benetton released a controversial ad depicting a black woman breastfeeding a white baby, and in 1991, they ran an ad in which a black woman and white woman hold an Asian toddler between them. The company, who used "all the colors of the world" as one of their first slogans, has continued to use a diverse range of models.
By 2002, the argument (made in a piece in The Atlantic by Randall Kennedy) that interracial couples in advertising were becoming "fashionable" emerged. "At least occasionally one sees interracial couples deployed as enticements to shop at Diesel or Club Monaco, or to buy furniture from Ikea, jeans from Guess, sweaters from Tommy Hilfiger, cologne from Calvin Klein, or water from Perrier," wrote Kennedy.
Indeed, in 2006, Mastercard ran an ad featuring an Asian-American woman and white man getting engaged; in 2008 Banana Republic, who tends to target WASP-ier demographics, ran an ad campaign featuring a black female model and white male model; the following year, one Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial depicted a white woman with a darker-skinner man eating bagels in bed (sans wedding rings); and in 2010, Lexus ran a holiday commercial featuring a racially ambiguous couple that also received racist backlash. More recently, though overshadowed by the Cheerios controversy, Blockbuster released an ad also featuring a family with a black father and white mother.
Photo: The 2006 Mastercard ad "Meet the Family."
In many of these cases, the company's reported goal is to be more inclusive and representational of American families. But I suspect that, in part, interracial couples in ads are less about being progressive and more about the aesthetics of such pairings, the contrast created by putting dark next to light or the humor of awkwardly mixing cultures. Advertisements have to be memorable and, as the Cheerios ad has shown, interracial pairings still cause a stir. Due perhaps to their historical hypersexualization, interracial ads have the ability, therefore, to not just be eye-catching but provocative. In 1990, United Colors of Benetton co-founder Luciano Benetton said that the company "did not create our advertisements in order to provoke, but to make people talk, to develop citizen consciousness." But whether the two goals can truly be separated when placed in a commercial context is unclear.
While advertising is often-overlooked territory, many people have researched the portrayal of interracial relationships on the big screen.
A University of Florida study of blockbuster Hollywood films between 1967 and 2005 concluded that the media is stuck on specific portrayals of interracial relationships: in the movies sampled, 42 percent of female characters in such pairings were victims of violence. "While white women in interracial relationships came across as either morally corrupt or socially inept or as victims of physical or sexual abuse, women of color who become involved with white men were often presented as erotic, exotic and possessing exceptional talents." And although it is statistically more likely for black men to 'marry out' of their race, the movie industry seems less keen on interracial couples with black men. According to this informal accumulation of movies with interracial couples, there are twice as many films featuring white men with black women than black men with white women.
For some reason it seems that interracial couples occur more casually and in more diverse ways on television. Off the top of my head, Grey's Anatomy, Skins, The L Word, Heroes, and Parks & Recreation are all fairly well-known television shows that have or had at least one interracial relationship. Sometimes, like in full-length films, "these relationships are almost exclusively depicted as comical misadventures, introduced as part of a criminal case, used as symbolic of the different worlds that are being portrayed, or play on perceptions of difference, highlighting that racially matched characters are the norm," as Erica Chito Childs wrote in a piece on interracial representation on TV for online journal of television and media studies Flow. But in some shows—particularly Grey's Anatomy and Parks & Rec—these relationships are portrayed like any other, with the characters' individual personalities driving the relationship (or causing it to end) and controversy stemming from personal differences rather than racial issues.
Photo: In Parks and Rec, Tom and Ann get up to something ridiculous.
In this context, wrought with historical significance, we can better understand (though not justify) why the Cheerios commercial was an issue in the first place. We are a society very much still in the process of dealing with our past and how to move forward from it. As mixed-race relationships and family are on the rise, public approval is as well—as demonstrated by this group of children and teens who express complete bewilderment (and disappointment) that there was a controversy at all.