It’s not that Camille Gibson thinks people get sentimental about their breakfast cereal exactly—though she’s not averse to tugging at a few heartstrings to market Cheerios, one of the most iconic brands in the category. But she never dreamed she would stir up so much passion with a simple :30 spot.
It all started in summer 2013. Gibson, vp, marketing for General Mills' Big G cereals division and a veteran of the company, had already reinvigorated the Green Giant, Pillsbury and Yoplait brands. For her first major effort on Cheerios, she nudged its agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, to inject some feeling into its ads, which had focused principally on health and nutrition.
“We’d been talking about lowering cholesterol and oats being good for you, and the brand was in a good place,” recalls Peter Moore Smith, Saatchi’s executive creative director. “Camille opened the door to more emotional storytelling.”
What she did precisely was to suggest that the family shown in a spot be an interracial one. Gibson wasn’t trying to court controversy but merely to reflect the face of an America everyone knew was changing.
The idea wasn’t a mandate, Smith says, but made perfect sense once the ad’s lead character was cast. The ad, “Just Checking,” centers on a little girl who cares so much about her dad’s health that she covers him with “heart-healthy” Cheerios during his nap.
When the ad debuted in May of last year, the earth shook.
Cheerios’ YouTube channel started filling up with hateful messages referring to Nazis, “racial genocide” and “troglodytes.” Some claimed to be so disgusted by the spot that they “want to vomit.” Within 24 hours, the company had little choice but to disable comments.
But not once did Gibson consider pulling the ad. In fact, the suddenly controversial spot gave Cheerios an opportunity to take a very public stand to defend it, pointing out that more consumers liked the spot than disliked it. According to data firm Kontera, “Just Checking” boosted Cheerios’ exposure by 77 percent.
“Our intent was to try to represent what the Cheerios brand stands for, and along the way, we ended up showing a lot of people what family means and looks like in America,” Gibson says. “We didn’t know starting out that we’d end up having this kind of impact.”
And because so many consumers warmed to the fictional family, Gibson doubled down, bringing them back for a 2014 Super Bowl commercial, the brand’s first ever. This time out, though, the parents have news: Mom is pregnant. Gracie decides she wants an addition of her own—a puppy. The ad was in the top 10 of USA Today’s annual poll of the most popular Super Bowl ads, and it ranked No. 1 in Good Morning America’s tally. On YouTube, the spot hit the global top 20 on Super Bowl Sunday and has since snagged 5.4 million views, with the hashtag #andapuppy becoming a trending topic on Twitter.
None of that surprises Jim Murphy, president of Big G Cereals. “We put her in spots where we really need our best marketer,” he says of Gibson. “It could be a turnaround, something at an inflection point, something stagnant. We put her where we need our best creative talent.”
Looking back, Gibson calls the interracial family spot “a career highlight,” even as it is bound to long remain a cultural highlight, too.
View the Brand Genius winner class of 2014:
Paul Crandell, GoPro | Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle | Michelle N. Fernandez, Canon USA | Camille M. Gibson, General Mills | Trudy Hardy, BMW of North America | Matt Jauchius, Nationwide | Quinn Kilbury, Newcastle Brown Ale | David Melançon, Benjamin Moore & Co. | Shane Smith, Vice | Dana White, UFC