General Mills always seemed quite embarrassed by the firestorm around its now-famous "Just Checking" ad for Cheerios—the one that was set upon by racist trolls on YouTube for featuring an interracial couple, leading the company to disable comments on the video.
The controversy brought free publicity, yes, though for unsavory reasons involving, at its core, a negative reaction to the spot (no matter that the vast majority of consumers swiftly came to the cereal maker's defense and turned the whole episode into a brand celebration of sorts). And yet it wasn't so much the backdrop of racism that seemed to make General Mills uncomfortable. It was any special attention whatsoever. And therein lies one of the peculiar things about the Cheerios brand. It wants to be (and has been for decades) so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. Though it spends millions on advertising, it doesn't really want to stand out. It wants to blend in—to its customers' lives, not their Facebook feeds.
This is exemplified time and again in the commercials from Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. They're small, quiet and dignified. They focus on simple, relatable family moments. They look inward, not outward. They don't want to make a scene. It must have been excruitiating, actually, to be at the center of such a big public controversy.
The brand is surely relieved, then, to move on to a new spot, its first :30 since "Just Checking." "Nana," which hit YouTube and TV on Wednesday, is classic Cheerios. It features a quiet conversation at the breakfast table between a mom and her son. (Both are white, though that should hardly be seen as a capitulation—it just is what it is.) The son asks, "Did Nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?" This innocent yet charged question touches off a multilayered back-and-forth that leaves Mom on the verge of tears at the end (and many viewers, too, judging anecdotally).
The ad, directed by Matt Smukler of Community Films, is skillfully done. The backstory isn't spelled out—there's plenty of evocative subtext. The emotion isn't laid on too thick. The acting is just right. And just look at the composition of the shots—the viewer is made to peek past door and window frames into this private moment. Everything is designed to be intimate and personal—and in that narrowing, the brand achieves the universal.
Two lines are particularly notable—one from the spot, and one from the YouTube page. At one point in the ad, Mom says, "Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever." And over on YouTube, the company's description of the ad is just a single sentence: "Based on a real event." Taken together, those two lines practically sum up the Cheerios brand. We're going to be real. And we're not going to change. And they serve, perhaps, as a subtle but potent rebuke to the haters of the previous spot.
"Love," says the on-screen copy at the end. "Just Checking" got plenty of it from consumers. But in some ways, "Nana" is probably how Cheerios prefers it.
Agency: Saatchi & Saatchi, New York
Chief Creative Officer: Conway Williamson
Executive Creative Director: Peter Smith
Associate Creative Director: Johnnie Ingram
Executive Producer: Dani Stoller
Management Director: Rodes Ponzer
Account Manager: Matt Muriello
Assistant Account Executive: Carly Wallace
Director: Matt Smukler
Production Company: Community Films
Executive Producer: Carl Swan
Line Producer: Carr Donald
Editor: Jim Ulbrich
Producer: Valerie Iorio
Assistant Editor: Elmer McCarty
DP: Andrij Parekh
Graphics: Michael Ricca
Music Company: Big Foote Music
Music Producer: Eric Korte
Audio Post: Michael Marinelli, Sonic Union