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Racism on social media in the Cheerios commercial "Just Checking"

Lesson plan on the topic "Race in America"

Seminararbeit 2018 18 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. The Commercial “Just Checking”
2.1 Reactions
2.2 Interracial Relationships in theUS

3. TheoreticalChapter
3.1 ShortFilms
3.2 Commercials
3.3 Short Films and Commercials in the TEFL Classroom

4. Realization of the Lesson

5. Conclusion

Works Cited


- Lesson Plan

- Worksheet

1. Introduction

In May 2013, Cheerios1 released a television commercial portraying an interracial family which consisted of a white mother, a black father and their biracial daugh­ter. This commercial sparked a controversy over race and what an American fam­ily should look like. It received such a strong racist backlash on social media for its representation of an interracial family that the comment section of the com­pany’s YouTube2 channel had to be disabled (Stump 2013). But Cheerios is not the only brand which has been attacked on social media for its choice of casting. In May 2016, the clothing brand Old Navy prompted social media outrage with an advertisement which featured an interracial family consisting of a white father, a black mother and their mixed-race child (Perez-Pena 2016). Also German brands have been attacked recently for using people of different religion or different skin colour in their advertisements. While the confectionary company Katjes got mas­sive reactions on social media for using a model with a headscarf representing a Muslim woman for the promotion of their vegetarian products (Poetzsch 2018), the health insurance DAK faced racist comments for putting up billboards with an interracial couple looking at the ultrasound image of their unborn baby (Schulte 2018). These incidents are just a few examples demonstrating that the topic of racism remains relevant up to this day and is even reinforced by social media.

The aim of this seminar paper is to develop a lesson plan on the sensitive topic of racism and its impact on individuals, families and society using the Cheerios commercial from 2013 and the debate it sparked on social media. I will begin the seminar paper by depicting the commercial and the reactions following its release. In a next step, I will provide brief information on the history of interra­cial relationships and current data on interracial marriages in the US. Then, I will focus in the theoretical chapter on short films and commercials by presenting their definitions and arguments for their integration in the TEFL classroom. Finally, I will present the realization of the lesson and explain the didactic decisions.

2. The Commercial “Just Checking”

The Cheerios commercial “Just Checking” aired on television for the first time 27th May 2013 and was uploaded to the company’s YouTube channel one day later (Tuleja 102).3 Over the next few weeks the video received over 4.1 million views (ibid.). The 30 seconds long commercial features a little biracial girl asking her white mother if it is true that Cheerios are good for the heart as her father had told her previously. After her mother assures her that whole grain oats reduce the risk of heart disease the little girl runs away with the box of cereals. In the next scene, we see the black father waking up from a nap on the sofa in the living room with a pile of Cheerios on the side of his chest where his heart is. The commercial ends with the word “Love” on the screen.

2.1 Reactions

The commercial triggered a backlash of racist and offensive comments for its rep­resentation of a mixed-race family. Due to the hateful reactions Cheerios decided to close the comment section for the video, but refused to take it completely down (ibid.). Camille Gibson, vice president for marketing at Cheerios, explained that the actors had been casted because “[ultimately we were trying to portray an American family, and there are lots of multicultural families in America today” (Stump 2013). In a NBC News interview the real-life father of the six-year-old actress in the commercial said, that he was not upset about the negative com­ments, but “pretty much really excited to have this type of reaction so we could see where we still stand in America” (Biracial Cheerios Girl and Parents Interview 'Excited' About Negative Comments 6 12 13: Apart from the racist state­ments, Cheerios also received a lot of support for portraying an interracial family.

Also, several response videos and parodies of the commercial have been created and uploaded to YouTube. In one of these response videos, two actresses pretend to be members of the Cheerios marketing team who have changed the commercial due to the received feedback “regarding a non-traditional family” (Cheerios “Just Checking” Backlash: by people “not ready to see a health-conscious interracial family enjoying breakfast” (ibid.). Therefore, they now give “America what it wants” (ibid.) by replacing the biracial girl by a white girl with blond hair and blue eyes and the napping black father by a white man wearing a Ku Klux Klan mask. At the end of the video, one of the supposed mar­keting team members ironically asks the viewers, if that is better. Another parody video features a black mother instead of the black father suggesting that American families can consist not only of people with different skin colour but also of the same sex (Cheerios Ad Parody "Just Checking" Response to Haters: At the end of the video the black mother, who has just woken up from her nap, looks irritated at the camera asking, if “[n]ow this is a problem” (ibid.). The video ends with the changed slo­gan “Eat It Haters” resembling Cheerios’ original slogan “Love”. Moreover, the brand Cheerios itself responded to the controversy and fought back by releasing a second commercial in the following year. Already in December 2013, it was an­nounced that for the first time in the brand’s history there would be a Cheerios commercial during the Super Bowl (Hunt 2013). Even though the Cheerios team kept secretive about the details, they stated that they were quite proud of the mes­sage of the upcoming commercial (ibid.). Hence, during the big game in February 2014, a second commercial aired featuring the interracial family from the “Just Checking” commercial (Cheerios Super Bowl Commercial 2014: In this follow-up, the father tells his daughter in a playful way that she soon will have a baby brother, while the mother listens to their conversation exposing her pregnant belly. The daughter quickly reacts to the news by asking for a puppy.

2.2 Interracial Relationships in the US

Until 1967, interracial relationships were considered illegal in 16 states, most of them in the South. In 1967, the Loving v. Virginia case involved the decision by the US Supreme Court to end all state laws banning interracial marriage.4 Follow­ing this case, the number of interracial marriages in the US has steadily increased.

According to current census data, the number of interracial and interethnic married couples has grown by 28 percent since 2000 (United States Census Bu­reau 2018). The demographic increase from 7.4 to 10.2 percent signifies that one out of 10 married couples in the US is interracial and/or interethnic (ibid.).5 Ac­cording to the census, the largest group is whites married to Hispanics, whereas whites married to black or African-Americans are only the fourth largest group (ibid.). Their number has increased in the states along the east coast (ibid.).

3. Theoretical Chapter

3.1 Short Films

Back in 1894, short films were the very first films shown to the public presenting celebrities, current affairs and everyday life scenes (Thaler 2017, 7). But after the rise of feature-length films commercial cinema no longer focused on short films (ibid.). Today, technological progress in the fields of digital video, mobile devices and video sharing websites has led to the return of short films (Donaghy 24). Ac­cording to Thaler (2010), the importance of short films is likely to rise because newer, simpler and cheaper forms of creating, distributing and viewing are about to develop (10). Among the traditional types of short films are music videos, sketches/skits, trailers, TV news, weather forecasts, interviews and commercials (Thaler 2017, 17). In addition to the traditional types of short films, new types of short films have developed such as infographic films, animated lectures, response films and mash-ups (Donaghy 25ff.).

3.2 Commercials

A commercial can be defined as “a TV spot produced and paid for by an organiza­tion, which markets a product, service, or idea” (Thaler 2014, 75) by highlighting the qualities of what is being advertised. The primary function of commercials is to make viewers buy the advertised product, service or idea (ibid.). Today, some TV commercials even hint at social problems such as poverty and climate change (Boneberger et al. 129). In length, commercials can range from a few seconds to half a minute, sometimes even longer (Thaler 2014, 75). They rely on certain fea­tures and strategies such as targeting selected audiences or milieus, the use of sur­prise effects, intensifiers or testimonials such as experts, celebrities or personali­ties representing the targeted group, scientific evidence or beautiful people (ibid. 76). Other common features of commercials are stereotyping, jingles (short melo­dies) or slogans (catch-phrases) as well as animations (ibid.). Moreover, commer­cials often work with simplifications, claims and are appealing to the needs of the customers (ibid.). The first commercial was broadcast in the US in 1941 during a baseball game and lasted 10 seconds (ibid. 75). Until today, sports programmes are still the most coveted environments for advertising like for example the annual Super Bowl, the biggest sport event in the world (ibid.).

Frith has developed an approach to reading the meaning of advertising consisting of three levels of meaning (5). First, the surface meaning which “con­sists of the overall impression that a reader might get form quickly studying the advertisement” (ibid.). This surface level of meaning can be described “by simply listing all the objects and people in the ad” (ibid.). Second, the intended meaning which consists of “the sales message that the advertiser is trying to get across” (ibid.). It can be described as “the strategy behind the ad” (ibid.) and “the ‘pre­ferred’ or expected meaning” (ibid.). Finally, Frith names the cultural or ideologi­cal meaning, which “relies on the cultural knowledge and background” (ibid.) of the viewer. The author argues that “we all ‘make sense’ of ads by relating them to our culture and to the shared belief systems held in common by most people” (ibid.). According to Thaler (2014), the first layer of a commercial is obvious, whereas the second and third are often hard to decode (77). This is especially true for younger learners in the TEFL classroom.

According to Thaler (2012), films in all their forms have been used in the TEFL classroom for over 60 years (68). However, he claims that they are not being im­plemented enough by teachers and names different reasons for this such as the lack of availability, poor condition of devices such as DVDs players or the lack of methodological know-how {ibid. 68f.).

Donaghy names several advantages for using short films in the classroom (24f.). First, they can be integrated more easily than feature films {ibid. 24). Since short films tell a whole narrative in a short period of time they allow teachers to focus on narrative structure and character development {ibid.). Further, short films are often open to different levels of interpretation and can captivate surprise, in­spire and provoke learners as they are usually unfamiliar to them {ibid.). As there is often only little dialogue, short films enable intensive filmic experiences {ibid.). Another argument for the integration of short films in the classroom is that they can trigger oral and written communication {ibid.). Finally, short films can pro­mote film literacy better than long formats because they are less intimidating for the mostly young audience {ibid.). Consequently, Donaghy is convinced that short films can be a wonderful medium in the language learning classroom due to their “accessibility, brevity, innovations and creativity” (25) and especially “for pro­moting both oral and written communication” {ibid.).

According to Thaler (2014), numerous arguments speak for the integration of commercials into the TEFL classroom (77). One of the main advantages is the repetitive character of commercials {ibid.). Since commercials are self-contained clips with a high level of repetition in particular younger learners can profit from them {ibid.). Apart from their repetitive character, commercials are also suitable for younger learners because of their brevity which can help with the comprehen­sion {ibid.). According to Davis, due to their “[authentic content, short duration, and the combination of words and visual images [commercials] are the ideal source for innovative, enjoyable and, most importantly, meaningful classroom activities” (http://jalt-

Regarding the choice of any film for the TEFL classroom, Thaler (2012) suggests the following criteria which resemble the criteria of music selection (67):


1 Cheerios is an American brand of breakfast cereals manufactured by General Mills.

2 YouTube is an online social community founded in 2005. On YouTube, users are able to post videos which can be watched, rated and commented by other users.

3 The original video has been taken down from the company’s YouTube channel, but is has been uploaded by several other YouTube users and can still be found when searching for “Just Check­ing (2013)”.

4 The Lovings, an interracial couple, were sentenced to one year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other because their marriage violated the state's anti-miscegenation statute prohibiting mar­riage between “white” and “coloured” people.

5 It seems important to note that this data only focuses on interracial marriages ignoring all other interracial relationships. Hence, the total number of interracial relationships is much higher than 10.2 percent.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Institution / Hochschule
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
TEFL Commericals Qualifikationsphase Q1 Oberstufe




Titel: Racism on social media in the Cheerios commercial "Just Checking"