Cheerios Faces a Battle Against Bigotry in Social Media Marketing

Dechay Watts

Written by Dechay Watts on Wed, Jun 05, 2013

cheerios bi-racial commercialNegative reviews and comments can happen to the best of companies in social media, even family-friendly Cheerios. It’s how you handle them – authentically and professionally - that can actually put you back on top.

Cheerios recently released a sweet commercial called “Just Checking” about a little girl trying to keep her dad’s heart healthy (by dousing him) with the cereal. The little girl is bi-racial, as her Caucasian mom and African-American dad are in in the spot.

Cheerios posted the ad to YouTube, as it does all of its commercials. But, after a surprising bombardment of racial slurs, Cheerios chose to disable the video’s comment section only a day after the ad appeared online. What was intended as a feel-good family ad caused a PR frenzy.

Camille Gibson, the brand's vice president of marketing, said in a statement: "At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families, and we celebrate them all." Later on the Today show she added: "The YouTube comments that were made were, in our view, not family-friendly. And that was really the trigger for us to pull them off."

But, where does the censoring end?  Now, comments have also been disabled on their “Big Brother” video, presumably because the racist people who could no longer comment on “Just Checking” moved their rant. Will Cheerios have to disable the comments from all of their YouTube videos that feature African-Americans?  We’re starting to see instigators like the one below show up on their “Dad and Son Go Shopping” video too.

cheerios youtube videoWas it right for Cheerios to pull down the comments?

One of the most damaging things that a brand can do is ignore its audience online when negative comments pop up or a crisis arises. Cheerios hasn’t ignored its audience, but they did pull the plug on authentic – although ignorant – online communication.

We normally believe a brand that covers up or hides negative comments in social media only do themselves a disservice. In the case of Cheerios, it was likely justified to not affiliate the brand with comments only intended to hurt people.

In response to disabling the comments Gibson said, “Ultimately we were trying to portray an American family. And there are lots of multicultural families in America today."

There are also lots of crazy hot heads in the social space. It’s inevitable that bad comes with the good as people share their opinions without filters, hidden behind the “masks” of online anonymity. Social media creates opportunities for people to hide behind fake profiles and possibly make comments they wouldn’t make if they weren’t posting incognito. Facing the bad head on and remaining transparent is the only way to uphold your positive reputation.  

Even though we are advocates of brand transparency, we do respect the action that Cheerios took in this case since the comments were so disparaging and affiliated the company with a stance that is counter to what they stand for.

It seems there are many brands that don’t want to get themselves in that predicament in the first place. According to a 2012 A.T. Kearney Social Media Study, 38 out of 50 brands allowed only posts from the company on their Facebook pages, 27 out of 50 never responded to comments and only four out of 50 responded to more than a quarter of the comments or question they received.

What do you think? Do you agree with Cheerios in this case, or do you think brands should always allow consumer feedback and reactions, no matter what they say?

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