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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Track changes: a history of the railways

Simon Bradley's new book takes us from the train carriage to station signposts, walking the line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence.

In his classic travel book The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux wrote that “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture”. Of nowhere is this truer than the first railway nation. So much of Britain is what Simon Bradley calls “railway-haunted territory” – its landscape either directly transformed by the bridges, tunnels, cuttings and marshalling yards or indirectly touched by the social revolution wrought by the train. The train compartment is a micro-society that has brought the classes together to gawp at and dissect each other. “I can watch a dirty middle-aged tradesman in a railway-carriage for hours,” wrote Rupert Brooke in 1910, “and love every dirty greasy sulky wrinkle in his weak chin and every button on his spotted unclean waistcoat.” From the romance of steam to the curled corners of the British Rail sandwich, the railways have stirred the national imagination. So a single-volume social history of the scale and ambition of Bradley’s feels overdue.

The book is arranged spatially rather than chronologically. It begins in the railway carriage, the “mobile enclosure in which millions of people enjoyed or endured billions of hours”, and then takes us along the permanent way and its hinterland, ending on the platforms and concourses of the great railway stations. The non-linearity makes for some slightly awkward transitions (“so now we must move out of the compartment for a time . . .”), but it does allow Bradley to show how, on the railways, the present is always colliding with the past. Victorian carriages, divided into single compartments, survived on electrified commuter lines into the 1960s; W H Auden’s Night Mail was still “crossing the border” into the 1980s; the slam-door carriages and wide-window vistas of the InterCity 125 add a 1970s retro-chic to the present fleet.

Bradley was a schoolboy trainspotter, and he retains something of the spotter’s meticulousness and completism (or perhaps he has acquired this as a joint editor of the Pevsner Architectural Guides). For arcane knowledge, alight here: we learn about the varieties of upholstered leather used to cover seats, the different types of lavatory (early prototypes exposed the user to a
hurricane-force draught from below), the many iterations of platform tickets and the minutiae of buffet-car menus. “A straw in the wind,” he writes drily of the slow decline of the Pullman trains, “was the abandonment of croutons with the soup course.”

While Bradley does not always succeed in separating the telling details from the mere details, his book is still generously stuffed with the former. He tells us how the steam that hisses so evocatively from the halted train in Edward Thomas’s poem “Adlestrop” was produced; how the diddly-dum, fourfold beat of a moving train comes from the way 20th-century track was welded together, unlike today’s continuously welded rails, which have done away with this lovely music for ever; and how the graffitied railway carriage of the 1970s owed less to a broken society than it did to the new technologies of aerosol paint and the marker pen.

Bradley’s book picks up full steam whenever he evokes the sensual experience of travelling by train in the days before it became like being on an airliner: “the sour smell of wet cigarette ash” on a rainy winter’s day, “the tobacco-tainted condensation on single-glazed carriage windows” and the “mysterious creaks, squeaks and groans” of the sleeper train, with its promise of magical translation, separated by unconsciousness, to another place.

It is harder to gauge Bradley’s politics: he does not have the crusading interest in political economy of that other great railway writer, Christian Wolmar. Skating over privatisation in a few pages, he passes up the chance to explore the railways as a case study in the tussle between free-market economics and subsidised, fixed-capital industry. Yet even as a boy he “sensed the integrity and purpose of the railway”, and he seems kindly disposed to the last days of British Rail and resistant to the mythology of national decline with which they became indelibly linked. He retains a particular affection for the high-speed trains of the ­pre-Thatcherite era, their aesthetic appeal and technical excellence forged out of an ideal marriage of state intervention and commercial nous.

Like most of us, Bradley is not enamoured of the Virgin Pendolino, with its parsimonious window-to-wall ratio and its failure to accommodate the inexorable rise of the rigid-wheeled suitcase. And he wryly notes the monetising of the everyday which leaves even the space on station signs up for sale. Clapham Junction is now “Home of James Pendleton Estate Agents, a passion for excellence” and Cambridge “Home of Anglia Ruskin University” – although I’ve always assumed that this is not “unintentionally comic”, as he says, but a rather clever joke.

But Bradley is too even-tempered to give way to bloviating about the good old days. He walks a nice line between nostalgic reminiscence and hard evidence. He is sanguine, for instance, about the conversion of stations from messy and multifunctional social spaces, with clattering trolleys, porters and waiting rooms, into a generic retail opportunity. As he points out, the railways were always a commercial proposition and never set out to be romantic or atmospheric – and besides, “cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes”.

The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is published by Profile Books (645pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war