Friday, April 27, 2012

Stereotypes and White Supremacy in KRAFT's MilkBites Campaign

I truly can't believe that I have to write what I'm about to write. Via a Sociological Images post by Bradley Koch, I found out about a KRAFT campaign for their new MilkBites, a snack that is "part milk, part granola."

The campaign uses an anthropomorphized version of the MilkBite, a little male MilkBite named Mel. The series of commercials, which appear to be both TV spots and online-only "diary" entries to better introduce Mel, set him up as a confused character who "has issues." Here's his introduction.


His very first line, as he looks in the mirror is, "Who are you? What am I?" It's followed by an introspective, "Maybe you're nothing," as he sits alone on a park bench. He tries to convince himself that's not true: "I'm valuable." But that positive assertion is immediately undercut when he is ignored by a waitress as he tries to get a refill. "Mel has issues" pops up on the screen, and then he's back in front of the mirror. "Are you milk? Are you granola? What are you?" he asks himself. There's a shot of him sitting on a couch and looking at a bowl of granola and a glass of milk (his parents, we'll find out in a future commercial), then he's back at the mirror. "I don't know." 

The campaign is clearly setting Mel up as a biracial character, and its using that biracialism as a source of anxiety and confusion. As Koch writes:
The problem with a marketing campaign like this is that it trivializes the experience of people with multiple racial/ethnic identities who are still often met with derision and confusion. The first ad above perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy about “confused” identities. As a child, I remember family members telling me that they didn’t have a problem with interracial couples but worried about how others might react to their children.
I completely agree that those are problematic aspects that are blatantly present in this campaign, but I'm also going to go one further. Not only does KRAFT use the construction of a biracial identity (of which there aren't really a lot of pop culture displays to begin with) in a way that perpetuates stereotypes about "confused" identities and the tragic mulatto myth, but--upon a closer examination of the commercials--I also think they're using that trope to perpetuate a narrative of white supremacy. 


I know that sounds extreme. I know I sound like one of those people who overanalyzes things with my own agenda firmly in place and then stretches them to my will. But I truly didn't seek this out. Really. Take a look at these. 


Mel Confronts His Parents for What They've Done to Him



Mel is upset with his parents. "You didn't think, did you? You didn't think what life was going to be like for me. Mom? Dad? For your son." Deep sigh. Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. How could Mel's parents do this to him? Mix races and create a conflicted, identity-less monstrosity? 

Even more frustrating is what comes after the voiceover about the product--"a snack like nothing else." Mel appears again, forlorn and lonely. "Find me in the dairy aisle." Pause. "Please," a weak and desperate plea. 

First, the announcer's claim that Mel is "like nothing else" negates any similarity that he has to either of his parents, a parallel that suggests individuals of multiple races have no connection to any of the cultural pieces that make up their heritage--a preposterous and insulting claim, in my opinion. 

Then, Mel's plea to "find him in the dairy aisle" can be read as a plea to identify him as white. After all, the "dairy" part of his heritage is the "milk," the white parent. In this way, Mel could be asking for people to allow him to "pass" in a way that suggests he sees the white part of his identity as superior. 

Think I'm reading too much into that? Well then you clearly haven't seen this next commercial. 


Mel Erases His "Granola" Heritage to Get Dates



Here, Mel's on a blind date with a conventionally attractive white woman. She cuts him off mid-sentence to say "I just have a question. Your profile said you were milk?" He affirms. Then she says, "You just look like granola." Mel says, "I get that a lot." He doesn't admit that he actually is part granola, and he immediately decides "this was a mistake." The woman tries to stop him as he walks off. "No wait. Please don't go. I'm . . . I'm kind of into it!"

Her assertion that she's "kind of into it" is exoticism. She's shocked to find herself sitting in front of someone who doesn't read as "milk" (white), but now that he's in front of her, she sees him as an opportunity to explore an "exotic" date. This is a problem that many people of color face when they're dating, and a problem that Suheir Hammad captures beautifully in this poem, "Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic":



Mel's Dating Reveals More White Preferences





This video in the "diary" series--which begins with the tagline, "I'm milk, I'm granola, but mostly I'm confused"--and Mel introduces himself to potential dates. Eventually he lays out his preferences. His "one big thing" is "blonde hair." He then corrects himself with "or brunette." The he lays out a hierarchy of hair color, "blonde, brunette, strawberry blonde, redhead." By privileging "blonde" above all else, Mel once again demonstrates his preference for white.


Mel's Self Loathing Turns Outward


In one of the "diary" videos (probably the most bizarre of the series), Mel uses a spork to go on a rant about miscegenation that echoes a lot of disturbing themes about race purity. 



Mel introduces us to his friend Spork and shares that they're similar because they're both "two things." He starts by listing Spork's positive attributes, including his uniqueness. But then he says, "I'm sorry. I can't do this." He then goes on a long rant about how the Spork is totally unnecessary and a recent "invention." He says there were two "perfectly good utensils" a "fork and a spoon" and that there's no need for a Spork who's "only in fast food restaurants." He sadly says "I don't get you" and then says "I don't get me." Though he eventually apologizes for putting his own insecurities off on Spork, his rant is pretty revealing. 

First Mel rejects calls for diversity appreciation by saying that he "can't do this" after giving lip service to Spork's "individuality." By talking about how there were two "perfectly good utensils," Mel calls up "separate but equal" ideology that maintains that it's not racist to insist that the bloodlines stay "pure" (a ridiculous narrative that's actually meaningless as race is a cultural--not biological--construction). He then falls back into the now familiar trope of the tragic mulatto, claiming that his biracialism has left him unable to fit into any group. "They're gonna say you're not a fork, you're not a spoon," he warns Spork. He's trying to convince himself that he has an identity, but the commercial ends with little hope. 

Bottom Line


These commercials outrage me. As the mother of a biracial daughter and a white woman married to a black man, I am frustrated with narratives that suggest people who "mix" are irresponsible and unconcerned with their children's well-being. But even more than that, I am absolutely sick and tired of white supremacy narratives cropping up everywhere. This is a commercial for a breakfast snack, for crying out loud! Do we really have to racialize that?!

This is not to say that I don't think race should be portrayed in pop culture. I am not of the "colorblind" camp. Of course race is an issue, and it would be ridiculous to pretend that it's not. But part of the reason race is an issue is because of campaigns like this one, campaigns that perpetuate stereotypes and marginalize people who don't neatly fit into preconceived categories.

I think it is immensely important that we call this type of narrative out when we see it. I know that people are going to say it's "just" a commercial, but that's how stereotypes work. There's no one, big, overarching thing that we can destroy to fix racism. Racism is an insidious presence that entangles us through multiple avenues, many of which are subtle and easy to overlook. This KRAFT campaign is an example of that, and I think we have a responsibility as ethical consumers to be conscious of that.

Boycott KRAFT


I find this campaign unacceptable. It perpetuates damaging stereotypes about multiracial people and a narrative of white supremacy. I will not be buying any KRAFT products as long as this campaign continues. 


If you feel the same, tell KRAFT that this is unacceptable.

You can post on their Facebook page for MilkBite or tweet them at @kraftfoods.

Edit: If you agree, please sign this Change.org petition telling Kraft to stop this campaign and consider their messages more carefully in the future.

Update 5/13: Like the Facebook page "Kraft MilkBite: Say NO to #TragicMel"
Use #TragicMel on Twitter to share your thoughts on the campaign and to get updates.

22 comments:

  1. I have to admit, when I started reading, I thought you were going a little overboard. I mean, I get the "it's not milk, it's not granola, what is it?" approach. Advertisers use it all the time. But it is the self-depricating attitude about it that just goes on and on that makes you wonder what is going on in this campaign. But the it is the video diaries that really support your argument. I think if they had not done those it would be much easier to look the other way. However, I still think that Kraft doesn't see it your way. And their marketing company probably doesn't either. I don't think racializing this situation (which is usually comical in it's use) was what they saw. Since this type of commercial is a trope, they were probably just trying to come up with a "new" way of expressing it and didn't realize the negative way it would be portrayed. And, unfortunately, the American people won't see it either. When you called out huggies on their "dad test" campaign, their page was covered with angry parents. But on Kraft's page, your's was the only negative comment I found. I can't decide if that is good or bad. On one hand, the fact that most people don't racialize it is a good thing. People don't "play the race card" at every real and imagined opportunity. However, when a campaign like this is run and people fail to see just how racially charged it is, could it be that racist sterotypes are so common in our culture we don't even notice it any more?

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    1. Yeah--I knew it was going to sound over the top, but I really, truly think that the textual support is there.

      As for why there's not the same level of outrage as there was with Huggies, I don't know. I suspect it's because we're more comfortable talking about sexism and gender stereotypes. Racism, on the other hand, we'd rather pretend is a thing of the past. We want to believe that we're now a "colorblind" society that occasionally has flare-ups with racist individuals who we can repudiate and then distance ourselves from, but we don't want to admit that racism is so systemic that a campaign like this could be using decades-old stereotypes to sell a breakfast food.

      It could also be that people are most likely to be outraged and respond directly to the companies if they feel personally impacted or attacked. In this case, maybe there just aren't as many people in multiracial families who feel that kind of personal response. The number of multiracial families is growing, however, and racial stereotyping impacts all of us, whether we recognize it personally or not.

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    2. All Of you people are fucking unbelievable. I am a son of a bi racial couple and i do not find this offensive whatsoever. ITS A FUCKING COMMERCIAL ABOUT A BREAKFAST BAR. Its people like you that are looking for shit to bitch about becuase you have nothing else to do that are what is wrong with society. If you have a problem with this commercial and what you think it stands for then may you people are really ashamed of who you are, who you dated, marrried or fucked. Look in the mirror like mel and try to figure who the fuck you are because normal people you are not.

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    3. I always love when people who disagree with an interpretation come in, react with nothing but profanity and dismissals, and then claim I'M the one overreacting.

      So, Anonymous, have you signed the petition yet?

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  2. WHAT.
    THE.
    FUCK.

    You are completely right and this is absolutely insane!! I can't believe they would play with fire like this. Insane!

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    1. I really don't get it. I mean, if it were just a couple of commercials with him going "I'm milk. I'm granola. Ahh, I don't get it!" fine. But to go on and on and on about how he's trying to pass himself as milk and how being two things at once is this crisis of identity. . . I truly don't know what the creator's of this campaign were thinking.

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  3. I saw this on twitter, we're from the UK so won't get milk bites but this still outrages me. Thank you for writing this, is it ok to link to it on my blog? It's just like when people call me an Oreo or a bounty bar, they think it's funny but I find it offensive.

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    1. Thanks, and please feel free to share!

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  4. I agree with you 100%!! You may be interested in the email response i received from Kraft today. Kraft is definitely correct that this campaign is not my "taste." The entire campaign is in poor taste. Kraft is an iconic American company advertising to a grand melting pot of individuals. Kraft's advertising team must be clueless about their audience. I hope that others take the time to write and express their concerns to Kraft!


    the email:

    Hi Charlotte,


    Thank you for visiting http://www.kraftfoods.com/.


    I wanted to thank you for sharing your concerns with us about our advertising. Your comments are important to us, we do take them seriously and I want to assure you that I will share them with our advertising staff. That said, I can't promise that you won't see this ad again.

    We consider our advertising the company's voice to the public. While we try to provide advertising that appeals to the majority of our audiences, it's hard to create advertising that fits everyone's taste.



    Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts.



    Kim McMiller
    Associate Director, Consumer Relations

    ~~TLXEA_23453617~~N





    ------------------------------------------------------------------


    I was dismayed at the offensiveness of your recent Milkbite commercial depicting a senario of a "mixed" bar complaining that "you didn't consider how hard my life would be." Such advertising perpetuates ignorance that there is something terrible or awry with being multiracial. I think someone should be held responsible for putting such garbage out as advertising. I think the commercial should be pulled and an apology issued to the public for the ignorance displayed.

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    1. Thank you for sharing that. I completely agree. This is not a matter of "taste." It's not like they went with a comical ad, ad we prefer an informative one. Or they're playing 80's rock in the background, and we prefer 90's alternative. The only reason this appeals to the "majority of [their] audience" (if it does) is because their audience is steeped in a culture that casually tosses around racial stereotypes and ignores the consequences that has on real lived experiences.

      This isn't just about Kraft. It's a cultural problem, but now Kraft is part of it. I really think the only way to change the larger cultural problem is to voice our concern over the smaller examples that make it up. Kraft cares about profit and its image, so if enough people stop buying their products and complain about this, they will listen.

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  5. I read down to the second video. I can't watch a bunch of videos while I'm trying to read, so I gave up. Because that's all the further I got, you've gone way overboard with this one.

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    1. Well, the videos are pretty integral to the analysis, and I really don't think I've gone overboard with this one. There are times when I have to make some creative leaps to make a claim, but this isn't one of them. The message is pretty clear.

      Delete
  6. I personally think you are reaching. I think the confusion is more about it being a new product and not knowing how the public will react to the new product, thus the what am I, who am I questioning. I see the ad and think wow they are really desperate for sales on this product so they are essentially making their product a virtual character to plead with the consumer. The mom and dad issue is will mixing the granola and milk still taste good to the consumer, am I bad or am I good, its not racial, its an do I taste good or bad. And the video about the dating and hair color, well I can't lie that is definitely a big stretch. People have a preference when it comes to hair color at least everyone I've ever met has. Some men prefer blondes to brunettes, brunettes to blondes, redheads, and women have the same thoughts. That has nothing to do with race.

    Like I said I think you're reaching and am offering a different theory on how the advertisment was "meant to be" seen.

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    1. it has lots to do with racial stereotypes. Why do some men prefer a hair colour? It is the WHY that is important? Are there good and bad in different proportions according to hair colour? Do you believe all blondes are dumb? In Australia there are individuals and institutions which believe all Aborigines are the same but white people are different because they are individuals. My dim memory was of a school teacher who divided her class into groups of hair colour with amazing results. Any one remember her????

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    2. oops jane elliott and eye colour but a fabulous story of prejudice and us

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  7. You know what I'm sick of? White women like you... This miscegenation problem and what is reflected on TV has gone too far. Your righteous indignation is laughable. Of COURSE you would be with a "Black man"....BRAVO.. What does your "caught in between 2 worlds" daughter think about the commercial? Oh that's right...I don't care.

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    1. Welcome to "post-racial America," folks.

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  8. .
    The entire "Tragic Mel" marketing campaign for this
    product is so racist and offensive on so many levels
    (For example -- the reinforcing of the false and racist
    stereotype of ''The Tragic Mulatto'; the reinforcing of
    the stereotype of “the closeted-racist White person”
    who chooses to 'Fetish-ize’ and / or ‘Objectify’ either
    Interracial-Relationships, Mixed-Race / Multiracial
    people or People-Of-Color, in general – and worse
    yet, expects them to “enjoy it”; etc.) – that one is
    led to wonder “What on earth was the marketing
    department thinking when they approved of then
    created this unnerving and offensive nonsense?”!
    .
    By the way – listed below, please find links that were
    created in HONOR of interracial relationships and of
    mixed-race / multiracial people and groups. =D


    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/message/4162



    https://www.facebook.com/allpeople.gifts/posts/452738141409383


    .

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  9. Unfortunately I think the commercials took away from most of us tryingt the best granola bar ever until it was too late. I saw the commercials and they didn't describe how amazing the bars were which is not good for a new product. If it was an old product I could understand the need for a weird taboo lets make people awkwardly laugh commmercial. I found the ads ineffective at selling but entertaining. Who knows maybe the writer was bi racial and felt it was a clever ad- although the ads made me think what a weird ad! To each their own- we all face discrimination and interpret things according to our experiences. We dont know what others have been though. If you found out the writer were bi racial, black, Mexican or Asian would u feel the same? The saddest part is I never thought to try the bars till the went to the outlet store damn they are delicious but discontinued probably in part due to the ineffective ads.

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  10. I couldn't even read this entire crazy rant of yours, because I found you making a big ado about absolutely nothing. You read way too much into their personifications. They were obviously taking inventions that people put together, like the spork, and comparing it to the milk bites. I thought it was great! None of that was about race, and if you really do believe it was, why aren't you thinking along the terms that Kraft is ultimately trying to get people to but their product, and in turn, is saying the Milk bites are the best invention EVER?! I thought it was creative. And I kind of found it appalling with your tragic mulatto mindset, that you were thinking in terms of black and white? HELLO! There are more races in this world, so it's not always about black and white...but that's all you mention

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  11. Well, if you didn't read it, it's hard for me to really care about your criticism of the argument, since you don't know what the argument was.


    Also, I definitely understand that there are other races beyond black and white and that people who are biracial in many forms face discrimination. I mention black and white specifically because there is a specific literary trope of the tragic mulatto being played upon in this commercial (but that's probably in the part of the that argument you didn't read.)

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  12. UGH, Actually I grudgingly did read it all, I was being facetious. So, yes my opinion still stands

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Comments are welcome and encouraged. I appreciate debate and have no problem hearing from people who disagree. This is a space where people can question and discuss. That said, I will delete comments that contain name-calling or bigotry. If it would get you kicked out of a dinner party, don't say it here. Use your manners.