Despite everything, television still has an extraordinary amount of power

The response to Nestlé featuring a mixed race family in an advert for Cheerios shows that the medium is still deeply conservative.

It starts out adorable, but sadly it doesn’t end that way. A little girl walks into the kitchen where Mum is sitting, smiling in that benign way mums in ads do. The child asks is if it’s true that Cheerios are good for your heart, her mum confirms it, while casually adding in some of the brand’s information. The girl smiles, grabs the box of cereal and practically skips off.

Then the camera cuts to the living room sofa, where Dad is just stirring from a nap. He rustles as he awakens, and looks down to find hundreds of Cheerios on his shirt, over where his heart would be. He looks bewildered, in the way dads in ads often look. The plinky-plonky music comes on to tell us to be charmed and we hear Dad’s vaguely hysterical call for “Jen!” (whom we assume is Mum).

It’s not a bad ad. In 30 seconds, it has it all: a family, to appease the chunk of the audience most likely to be buying a box of Cheerios; and the right music, unobtrusive and subtle. The kid, like almost all American child actors, is very good and quite cute too. The parents are not model-beautiful, just normal, everyday “not unattractive”, and importantly their respective attractiveness matches. And they’re selling cereal, the blandest of kitchen staples.

So why has this innocuous ad caused a stir? Simple: race. The little girl at the start is a mixed-race child. Her “parents” are in an interracial relationship; he is black and she is white. If you’re waiting on me to reveal that at some point the family skins a kitten and pledges allegiance to Satan, I’m afraid I can’t help you. The problem – as detailed by several of the intensely racist comments beneath the YouTube video of the ad – was that this family had the temerity simply to exist. That, despite the (unconstitutional since 1967) anti-miscegenation laws of the US, they had been formed and that a cereal company had dared to showcase them. A quick reminder that this is the year of our Lord 2013.

I saw the ad as it came up on my Tumblr dashboard shortly after it was first posted, and accompanied only by comments along the lines of “aw, cute!”. I watched it, noted the family’s mix and gave a muted thumbs up – I live in London, as I have done for most of my life, and this has been the situation on the ground for a good long while. Furthermore, even away from the world’s capital cities, the interracial family is a reality.

So what had made people watch this ad, and rather than appreciate seeing a gentle and warm family moment cynically exploited to sell crunchy cereal, leave comments where words such as “troglodyte” and “racial genocide” were thrown around, as well as references to crime, absentee fatherhood and other racist stereotypes? The answer is that it appeared on television.

Television, despite all the tears and handwringing that it is in its death throes, still has an extraordinary amount of power. Across playgrounds and offices, telly has given us the “watercooler moment” time and time again. Television is a unifier, and to a great extent a “normer” – it almost legitimises what we already kind of know to be true. The things that “shock” us on television are rarely new: what connects Brookside’s lesbian kiss with EastEnders’ incest storyline? They were things that had been happening in the “real world”.

What television does is show it, often years later, and rarely at the same levels in which it is happening in society. In fact, if we were going with the census data, just one ad with a mixed-race family is hardly representative.

Consider both of the players: TV and Nestlé. Television is deeply conservative, still. And cereal companies are not just mad about wholegrain, their very stock-in-trade is wholesome. This was not an indecipherable perfume ad, with French people kissing and exposing their nipples willy-nilly. It was a family house, with a family in it, and a cereal that purports to keep your heart healthy. The product did not matter. The existence of this family, legitimised by television did. I reckon television should clap itself on the back for this one. If people are still threatened by the realities of human society – as portrayed in a banal advert – there’s life in the old dog yet.

The Nestlé ad.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

The Writers Museum
Show Hide image

Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear