UPDATE: KRAFT HAS RESPONDED TO THIS ORIGINAL POST.
I truly can’t believe that I have to write what I’m about to write. Via a Sociological Images post by Bradley Koch, I found out about a KRAFT campaign for their new MilkBites, a snack that is “part milk, part granola.”
The campaign uses an anthropomorphized version of the MilkBite, a little male MilkBite named Mel. The series of commercials, which appear to be both TV spots and online-only “diary” entries to better introduce Mel, set him up as a confused character who “has issues.” Here’s his introduction.
His very first line, as he looks in the mirror is, “Who are you? What am I?” It’s followed by an introspective, “Maybe you’re nothing,” as he sits alone on a park bench. He tries to convince himself that’s not true: “I’m valuable.” But that positive assertion is immediately undercut when he is ignored by a waitress as he tries to get a refill. “Mel has issues” pops up on the screen, and then he’s back in front of the mirror. “Are you milk? Are you granola? What are you?” he asks himself. There’s a shot of him sitting on a couch and looking at a bowl of granola and a glass of milk (his parents, we’ll find out in a future commercial), then he’s back at the mirror. “I don’t know.”
The campaign is clearly setting Mel up as a biracial character, and its using that biracialism as a source of anxiety and confusion. As Koch writes:
“The problem with a marketing campaign like this is that it trivializes the experience of people with multiple racial/ethnic identities who are still often met with derision and confusion. The first ad above perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy about “confused” identities. As a child, I remember family members telling me that they didn’t have a problem with interracial couples but worried about how others might react to their children.”
I completely agree that those are problematic aspects that are blatantly present in this campaign, but I’m also going to go one further. Not only does KRAFT use the construction of a biracial identity (of which there aren’t really a lot of pop culture displays to begin with) in a way that perpetuates stereotypes about “confused” identities and the tragic mulatto myth, but–upon a closer examination of the commercials–I also think they’re using that trope to perpetuate a narrative of white supremacy.
I know that sounds extreme. I know I sound like one of those people who overanalyzes things with my own agenda firmly in place and then stretches them to my will. But I truly didn’t seek this out. Really. Take a look at these.
EXCERPTS FROM KRAFT’S MILKBITES CAMPAIGN
Mel Confronts His Parents for What They’ve Done to Him
Mel is upset with his parents. “You didn’t think, did you? You didn’t think what life was going to be like for me. Mom? Dad? For your son.” Deep sigh. Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. How could Mel’s parents do this to him? Mix races and create a conflicted, identity-less monstrosity?
Even more frustrating is what comes after the voiceover about the product–”a snack like nothing else.” Mel appears again, forlorn and lonely. “Find me in the dairy aisle.” Pause. “Please,” a weak and desperate plea.
First, the announcer’s claim that Mel is “like nothing else” negates any similarity that he has to either of his parents, a parallel that suggests individuals of multiple races have no connection to any of the cultural pieces that make up their heritage–a preposterous and insulting claim, in my opinion.
Then, Mel’s plea to “find him in the dairy aisle” can be read as a plea to identify him as white. After all, the “dairy” part of his heritage is the “milk,” the white parent. In this way, Mel could be asking for people to allow him to “pass” in a way that suggests he sees the white part of his identity as superior.
Think I’m reading too much into that? Well then you clearly haven’t seen this next commercial.
Mel Erases His “Granola” Heritage to Get Dates
Here, Mel’s on a blind date with a conventionally attractive white woman. She cuts him off mid-sentence to say “I just have a question. Your profile said you were milk?” He affirms. Then she says, “You just look like granola.” Mel says, “I get that a lot.” He doesn’t admit that he actually is part granola, and he immediately decides “this was a mistake.” The woman tries to stop him as he walks off. “No wait. Please don’t go. I’m . . . I’m kind of into it!”
Her assertion that she’s “kind of into it” is exoticism. She’s shocked to find herself sitting in front of someone who doesn’t read as “milk” (white), but now that he’s in front of her, she sees him as an opportunity to explore an “exotic” date. This is a problem that many people of color face when they’re dating, and a problem that Suheir Hammad captures beautifully in this poem, “Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic“:
Mel’s Dating Reveals More White Preferences
This video in the “diary” series–which begins with the tagline, “I’m milk, I’m granola, but mostly I’m confused”–and Mel introduces himself to potential dates. Eventually he lays out his preferences. His “one big thing” is “blonde hair.” He then corrects himself with “or brunette.” The he lays out a hierarchy of hair color, “blonde, brunette, strawberry blonde, redhead.” By privileging “blonde” above all else, Mel once again demonstrates his preference for white.
Mel’s self loathing turns outward in one of the “diary” videos (probably the most bizarre of the series), Mel uses a spork to go on a rant about miscegenation that echoes a lot of disturbing themes about race purity.
Mel introduces us to his friend Spork and shares that they’re similar because they’re both “two things.” He starts by listing Spork’s positive attributes, including his uniqueness. But then he says, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” He then goes on a long rant about how the Spork is totally unnecessary and a recent “invention.” He says there were two “perfectly good utensils” a “fork and a spoon” and that there’s no need for a Spork who’s “only in fast food restaurants.” He sadly says “I don’t get you” and then says “I don’t get me.” Though he eventually apologizes for putting his own insecurities off on Spork, his rant is pretty revealing.
First Mel rejects calls for diversity appreciation by saying that he “can’t do this” after giving lip service to Spork’s “individuality.” By talking about how there were two “perfectly good utensils,” Mel calls up “separate but equal” ideology that maintains that it’s not racist to insist that the bloodlines stay “pure” (a ridiculous narrative that’s actually meaningless as race is a cultural–not biological–construction). He then falls back into the now familiar trope of the tragic mulatto, claiming that his biracialism has left him unable to fit into any group. “They’re gonna say you’re not a fork, you’re not a spoon,” he warns Spork. He’s trying to convince himself that he has an identity, but the commercial ends with little hope.
These commercials outrage me. As the mother of a biracial daughter and a white woman married to a black man, I am frustrated with narratives that suggest people who “mix” are irresponsible and unconcerned with their children’s well-being. But even more than that, I am absolutely sick and tired of white supremacy narratives cropping up everywhere. This is a commercial for a breakfast snack, for crying out loud! Do we really have to racialize that?!
This is not to say that I don’t think race should be portrayed in pop culture. I am not of the “colorblind” camp. Of course race is an issue, and it would be ridiculous to pretend that it’s not. But part of the reason race is an issue is because of campaigns like this one, campaigns that perpetuate stereotypes and marginalize people who don’t neatly fit into preconceived categories.
I think it is immensely important that we call this type of narrative out when we see it. I know that people are going to say it’s “just” a commercial, but that’s how stereotypes work. There’s no one, big, overarching thing that we can destroy to fix racism. Racism is an insidious presence that entangles us through multiple avenues, many of which are subtle and easy to overlook. This KRAFT campaign is an example of that, and I think we have a responsibility as ethical consumers to be conscious of that.
I find this campaign unacceptable. It perpetuates damaging stereotypes about multiracial people and a narrative of white supremacy. I will not be buying any KRAFT products as long as this campaign continues.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Sign the petition. If you already signed it, share it.
- Like our Facebook page “Kraft MilkBite: Say NO to #TragicMel”.
- Use the #TragicMel hashtag to tell @kraftfoods this campaign is unacceptable.
- Post on Kraft MilkBite’s Facebook page to tell them what you think.
This article was originally published on Balancing Jane.