Can a Commercial Solve Racism? These 7 Tried

An image from a new Pedigree dog-food commercial that addresses race

A good commercial can make you laugh, cry, call your mom or even occasionally buy something you hadn’t intended. But a new ad by Pedigree dog food asks another question: Can a commercial make you get over racism? 

Pedigree recently launched an ad campaign that ostensibly is about walking your dog, but is actually promoting a kind of racial harmony and togetherness that we don’t often see in commercials. The ad, titled “The Walk,” features a curmudgeonly old man walking his dog in a neighborhood. He kind of reminds you of Sean Connery’s character in Finding Forrester, the last old white guy in a neighborhood that’s changed right under his nose. He scowls at his new black neighbors, but suddenly, when his dog and the dog of a young black man connect, a bond is formed, ice is broken and suddenly, everything seems like it might be OK.

Whether this inspires an “Awwww” from you or a groan of cynicism (or vacillating between the two), it speaks to a new form of advertising that has moved from the diversity of yesteryear to the political commentary of today. Having a racially diverse cast in a commercial is one thing; that can be about purely cynical marketing to a demographic group. However, placing your ad in the midst of culture wars, class conflicts and racial strife is something else entirely. And increasingly, advertisers are fond of targeting red-state vs. blue-state America, which is quite a change from the simple diversity of the past.


Hilltop, 1971

The 1971 “Hilltop” commercial (most people know it as the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial) featured an incredibly diverse group of people from all over the world singing about how Coke brought them together. It was a nice hippie commercial at the time, but more a reflection of Coke’s power than any real attempt at social commentary.  

Benetton, 1986

The 1980s brought us the ubiquitous Benetton ads: diverse people, all proudly displaying their differences. Benetton’s print ads actually caused a lot more stir than the televised ones, but again, progress was made. You began to see racial diversity not just as a prop for white main characters, but representative of actual potential consumers of a product.


Gap Khaki Swing, 1998

The real leap from simply acknowledging racial diversity in advertising to actually stepping into marketing for racial and cultural progress began in the 1990s. Among the first of those ads were the Gap Khaki commercials. These ads began to subtly suggest a kind of kinetic diversity that could slip by the first line of defense of the angry culture wars in America. If you notice, in the background of many of the ads is the clear impression of not only interracial dancing (to ’50s swing music, no less! Take that, Greatest Generation!), but possibly LGBT pairings as well.


Volkwagen Golf, 1997

Another ad campaign following in a similar vein to that of Gap Khaki was Volkswagen’s campaign for the Golf. To the vast majority of straight Americans (and many gay Americans), this commercial was just about two roommates. In fact, since it featured a white man and a black man (and interracial couples were still rare on television), there was plenty to throw people off the scent. But the advertisers admitted at the time that the commercial was intentionally ambiguous about the relationship between the two men. And given that the commercial premiered during the “Coming Out” episode of Ellen, Volkswagen wasn’t just trying to sell cars; it was making a statement about the company’s politics and diversity, too.


Verizon, 2013; Honey Maid, 2014; and Cheerios, 2014

Today, with the belief in an intensely culturally and racially divided America between blue and red states, advertisers have become increasingly bold in how they connect politics to commercial products. Chick-fil-A won’t back down from anti-gay-marriage policies, and it knows full well that such a position actually sells more chicken in certain states. Companies that want to sell to blue-state progressives, racial minorities and liberals aren’t satisfied with placing a random, ambiguous couple on the screen. Honey Maid shows married gay couples with kids; Verizon shows black families that are sci-fi nerds; and Cheerios shows an interracial couple (with a black man and a white woman) who actually (gasp) had sex and produced a child.

It’s not likely that these commercials have actually changed anyone’s belief systems about race, class or culture. The vast majority of Americans still live in neighborhoods where 95 percent of their neighbors are the same color, and only 7 percent of the U.S. population is in interracial marriages (and those are mostly of whites with Asians or Latinos).


So while these commercials may gloss over the harsh realities of race, class and gender that still affect this country, selling the “image” of diversity is something that companies and consumers want to be associated with. Now, will all companies make a leap like Pedigree dog food? It all depends on how valuable politically themed advertising turns out to be. Pedigree is tackling racism, classism and gentrification all while peddling dog food, which is a pretty tall order. If showing that your soda is environmentally conscious, or that your company is OK with multiracial kids or gay marriage, places you in the middle of the culture wars but also ensconces you in the pockets of progressives with disposable income, it’s a fair gamble for big business.

In the meantime, get ready for even more explicitly political commercials in the near future. If Chick-fil-A can be anti-gay marriage on one hand but offer a vegan-friendly menu on the other, the gender-swapping, racially ambiguous and politically conscious crowd must be big money. 


Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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