A Sign of ‘Modern Society’: More Multiracial Families in Commercials

Posted June 4, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

A hapless man stands on the sidewalk, watching and wincing as an ex-girlfriend tosses his possessions out a second-floor window in a commercial for DirecTV Now. A husband and wife are overjoyed to learn from a Fidelity investments adviser that, yes, they have saved enough for retirement to realize their fondest dream, one that involves a boat and a grandchild. And a considerably younger couple is delighted with the possibilities presented by the Clearblue ovulation test system.

The men and women vary in age, circumstances and happiness levels, but they have one thing in common. They are all part of interracial couples.

Recently, companies and brands like JPMorgan Chase, Humira, State Farm, Smile Direct Club, Coors Light, Macy’s, Tide and Cadillac have featured multiracial couples or families in their advertising.

“There’s no doubt that the incidence of these commercials is at least double what it was five years ago,” said Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at the Pace University Lubin School of Business.

“For the longest time, ads presented the typical American household as Caucasian, heterosexual, two children and two cars in the driveway,” he added. “There’s still a part of the world that’s like that, but there’s a large portion that is nothing like the ‘Father Knows Best’ Americana image. It’s taken the advertising community, and particularly their clients, a long time to come to grips with that. They’re risk averse.”

That relatively new awareness, Chiagouris said, has resulted in not only more ads with interracial couples, but also more gay and lesbian couples.

The prevalence of these commercials “is a reflection of modern society,” said Sarah Block, executive vice president and creative director of Leo Burnett USA, who has worked on several ads depicting multiracial families, including commercials for Kraft. “It’s portraying the situation that is out in the world.”

The commercials are a way for companies to signal that they are open-minded and progressive. “I think there’s an ever increasing demand from customers to understand not just what products and services you provide but also to understand who you are as a company, what your values are,” said Fiona Carter, chief brand officer of AT&T, which owns DirecTV.

“I think there’s been a seismic shift in people demanding that the media they’re consuming truly portray their lives,” she added. “I would say there’s been a corresponding intentionality in our company to ensure that we’re doing right by our customers — portraying diversity — and letting our customers then see their own stories in the advertising we do.”

Of course, not all viewers have been enthusiastic or even accepting. When Cheerios released a commercial in 2013 featuring an interracial family, it received enough racist vitriol online that the YouTube comment channel below the ad was closed. But there was also an outpouring of support, and Cheerios ran a sequel to the ad during the Super Bowl in 2014.

“Cheerios is about families and about families in America, and we’re a very diverse group of people here,” said Andrea Diquez, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi New York, the agency that produced the commercials. “We didn’t think it would be controversial.”

Old Navy and State Farm have also dealt with racist commentary online after posting Twitter spots that showed interracial relationships.

At this point, such advertising isn’t considered particularly groundbreaking, said Allen Adamson, a founder of Metaforce, a marketing strategy firm, “but because we’re a polarized nation, they still don’t sit at all well with some consumers.”

“It’s a cost-benefit thing,” he said. “Most marketers have come to realize that no matter what they do, a certain segment is going to be offended. But the upside — seeming inclusive — outweighs the risk of ruffling feathers.”

Marty Kohr, a lecturer in persuasive messaging at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, cited data from the Pew Research Center to explain brands’ interest in depicting multiracial couples and families in their advertising. In 2017, 39 percent of poll respondents said interracial marriage was good for society, up from 24 percent in 2010.

“For the growing number of people who think interracial marriage is a good thing, that positions your brand as forward-thinking and inclusive,” Kohr said.

Susan Canavari, chief brand officer for JPMorgan Chase, said the bank wasn’t trying to make a statement with its 2016 commercial that followed the relationship of a white boy and a black girl as it progressed from puppy love to marriage.

“We really just intend to make all our communications reflect our customers,” Canavari said. “We didn’t get more or less response to that ad than to any other.

“We’re a bank,” she added with a laugh. “Everything we do is greeted with some sort of cynicism.”