Using Stereotypes to Gain Publicity? The KRAFT Milkbite Plot Thickens.

In Kraft’s response to my petition against their MilkBite campaign, they said that they didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I said that I believed them, but that it’s now their responsibility to fix the campaign because it is offensive.

Now I’m not so sure that I believe them at all.

Offended People Draw Attention

See, this isn’t the first time that Kraft has used stereotypical portrayals to gain attention. Back in early 2011, Kraft received a lot of negative attention over their Athenos campaign that featured “Yiayia,” a stereotypical portrayal of a Greek woman who disapproves of most everything except Athenos brand products. Here’s an example:

Back then, people called out these commercials for being stereotypical and sending disparaging messages about the Greek community. For some examples, see these posts from The Response Agency and USA Today.

That campaign was created by an ad company called Droga5, and they are also responsible for the Mel the MilkBite campaign. Aesthetically, they do really good work. The ads are well-made and visually appealing. They’ve clearly got talent, but do they have morals? Do they have any sense of social responsibility?

What did Droga5 think about the controversy surrounding their stereotypical portrayal of Greek women? They thought it sounded like a great selling point for future promotions. Take a look at this:

A voice over asks, “Would you like to hear how we started a national debate over hummus? Of course you do!” He goes on to talk about how the Athenos brand was in decline and how Kraft came to Droga5 so they could “spark new energy” into the line. He then discusses a very noble goal: rebranding Athenos as “food done the right way” which would appeal to their target audience of young adult women who make healthy food choices. So far, so good, right?

But then they start talking about how they chose Yiayia (Greek for “Grandmother”) as their spokesperson. Suddenly the focus isn’t on the quality of the food anymore (sure, that’s briefly mentioned in the ad, right in between Yiayia calling a young woman a prostitute multiple times). Instead, the success of the campaign hinges entirely on the entertainment other people get from viewing the stereotypical portrayal.

The voice over continues to say how “everyone was talking about Yiayia.” He says that they didn’t mind that they upset some people (including Greek cultural groups) because it kept the conversation going and allowed people to “understand what Athenos was about” for the first time. This peppy voice doesn’t explain exactly how getting people to laugh at a stereotypical portrayal somehow equates to getting people to appreciate high quality foods (their self-stated goal), but he sure is happy to talk about all of the social media exposure the controversy fueled.

In other words, the Athenos campaign was a success because it used stereotypes and got people upset. This video essentially shows Droga5 bragging about their ability to cause a controversy by hurting people through stereotypes.

And Yaiyai’s back! Kraft has resurfaced her for some new Athenos spots.

Now, Kraft, tell me again how you didn’t intend your commercials to offend?

What Does This Mean for Us?

What does this mean for people who want to point out how insulting Kraft’s MilkBite campaign is (and you can read the  full analysis of those commercials here)? How can we leverage our voices without giving Kraft exactly what they’re looking for: controversy that fuels their product’s exposure?

I don’t have a simple answer to that question.

What I do know is that I can’t sit back and do nothing. Even before I started this campaign, Kraft’s MilkBite Facebook page had thousands of followers. These commercials are showing in millions of homes across the country.

I firmly believe that stereotypes operate subtly. We don’t consciously decide to think negatively about an entire group (usually, there are some disturbing exceptions). Instead, we construct mediated realities from the images we see and the messages we receive, and those realities inform the way that we treat people around us, often without us ever having to consciously think about it at all. That means that Kraft’s campaign has the potential to do great damage. By demonstrating that people of multiracial backgrounds are flawed, Kraft impacts the way that multiracial people see themselves as well as the way that others see them. The fact that Mel is cartoon-like makes him especially attractive to children, who are even more susceptible to messages about identity construction.

So, in my opinion, doing nothing is not an option.

But we also can’t just play into Kraft’s hand by stirring up a bunch of controversy over their brand, bringing them some new exposure, and then falling quietly into the background as they rake in the profit.

Instead, we have to broaden this conversation. Kraft is a text that we are using, but the real conversation we’re having is about media literacy.

Media Literacy

What is media literacy? Media literacy is the ability to critically analyze and evaluate the messages we’re consuming. The National Association for Media Literacy Education defines it:

Within North America, media literacy is seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to ACCESSANALYZEEVALUATE, and COMMUNICATE information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages.Media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of an increasingly wide range of messages using image, language, and sound. It is the skillful application of literacy skills to media and technology messages.

What it means practically is that we have to enact our power to influence the media around us because–at the end of the day–media is a reflection of us as much as we are a reflection of the media. We have to engage in critical conversations about the messages that media send and demand media that reflects the values we want to see in the world.

In the case of the Kraft MilkBite campaign, that means that if we want to see values of equality and acceptance reflected in this mass media campaign, we have to tell Kraft that we won’t take the bait. We’re not going to passively accept a damaging stereotype. We have to tell them that we are going to be active consumers of the messages they’re sending and that we don’t like what we see.

When these companies use stereotypes to draw attention, they’re trying to make money. If we let them know that spreading damaging messages isn’t the way to do it, they’ll stop. But we have to mean it, and we have to hold them accountable. We have the right to voice our opinions about ad campaigns and spend our dollars with companies that reflect our values.

What You Can Do

CLICK TO TWEET: Tell @kraftfoods that #TragicMel is an unacceptable exploitation of the tragic mulatto myth. #multiracial #racism