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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era