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February 20, 2010

Even Hot Chocolate

Family Bonding coffee ad.jpg

(Click for larger size)

by contributor Stan Banos

I'm not claiming this is the absolute first- though it's most definitely the first commercial print ad I've ever seen featuring a biracial European and African American family (be interested if any of you know of others). Couple of things of note- first, it runs in the December 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine; and although ultimately ubiquitous in libraries, thrift stores and third grade art collages, Nat Geo's original audience can be seen as an educated, somewhat "upscale" lot, and the product itself (a cappuccino maker), one directed at an upscale taste and market.

The photograph is quite interesting as far as its composition.

The child, whose complexion is similar to his father's, is in considerably closer proximity to him than his mother, thus acknowledging his sense of identity as a person of color. His mother however is pictured reaching out and making contact with him, leaving no doubt of her pride and connection- of course, those slightly more "pessimistic" amongst us would point out that this was done merely to divide the composition in half to isolate the smiling attractive blonde with said product and ensure the requisite status identification. And no doubt, there are those that would point out that dad is barely in the picture altogether- the visual focus straight center on mom.

Whichever way you look at it, it is very clever and manipulative usage of visual/graphic elements in this "post racial" commercial advertisement that noticeably goes beyond the usual public service message and the confines of the 9-5 workplace, and straight into the sanctity of the American home. How long until more mainstream companies and products advertise similar visuals on larger more mainstream venues?

Guess we still got a ways to go before dad can actually lay hold and officially proclaim ownership of that fancy biracial coffee maker (hold the cafe au lait racial "jokes," please). But it's still a welcomed first step from the usual sanctimonious script- as exemplified by Hollywood's The Blind Side, where the magnanimous white woman rescues, validates, and bestows salvation upon the helpless African American man child.

Stan Banos publishes Reciprocity Failure and Expiration Notice  (with Mark Page).

  • ratfood

    Could there be a hidden message in the ad’s small print?

    The only home brewing system that vies everyone the drink they want. From coffees and teas to rich cappuccinos and lattes. Even hot chocolate.

    Seriously, my takeaway is this family is WIRED. Time to switch to decaf.

  • Matt Platte

    So we’re instructed to “hold the cafe au lait racial ‘jokes’” when commenting on a story titled “even hot chocolate”?

  • quincyscott

    The placement of the son and father together, with some distance for the mother, could just as easily be about gender rather than race.
    Also, I really can’t believe this ad’s visual composition and the verbage are just coincidental. It touts the machine’s ability to please a range of coffee-drinkers, from milky light to dark brews. Come on.
    But I don’t think there is any irony or spite intended here. The ad makers are absolutely aware of this connection, and they expect their audience to be hip to the joke. The laughing family depicted is in on it, too. I read this as the kind of joke that this family tells itself, not one that someone else would say out of bigotry.
    Distasteful? Or so post-racial that we can laugh about it? I think there will be a big variety of reactions to this ad, even among the more thoughtful and progressive viewers.

  • quincyscott

    Yes, they are oh-so-happy, aren’t they?

  • Stan B.

    Got to admit I didn’t see the forest for the trees here as far as the “hot chocolate.” And I’m certainly not about to tell anyone what to comment on- coming from a certain era, I’m just aware of how rife this visual is for the the “usual” array of stereotypical racial “jokes.” I hope and honestly think many of us well beyond even the thought. Unfortunately I’m also well aware that there is a large and (un)certain percentage where such thoughts are latent, repressed or just brewing right below the surface- and we don’t need a tea party to have them percolate…

  • Amy Baskin

    What exactly are the son and the father doing? And why is the mother placed squarely in the center of the frame in a way that makes her look larger than the other two?

  • Jerry Holtaway

    “featuring a biracial European and African American family” – um, have I lived outside America so long that I missed something? I hope I’m not offending anyone, but are, um “white” people now called “European”?

  • thomas

    The thing I immediately cued to was the typesetting of the call-out phrase. What this ad is really saying is “Family bonding without the family.” The phrase could have been set on two lines, easily. That “agreeing” is an orphan on its own line makes clear the main message is that family warmth can be obtained without all of the disapproving, upsetting family entanglements. The suggestion seems to be that if this is a mixed-race modern nuclear family unburdened by the meddling of judgmental extended family members.
    I have no idea why they are laboring over what feels like a very forced narrative. This, again, seems to be a very tight script authored by a very specific market research firm. All I know is nothing kills an ad like laughing, smiling generic young professionals. Seen it a kabillion kazillion times. Whatever they are trying to say about unconventional family structures is thoroughly undercut by the clip art.

  • Stan B.

    “European” as in European American, as opposed to African American (as conjoined within the sentence). If we’re going to get into semantics, I think most “Whites” in America (or anywhere else for that matter) would trace their ancestry to somewhere in Europe, as opposed to the Caucasus.
    BTW- Many of those native to the Caucusus refer to themselves as “Black” because they are darker than the surrounding majority. And, of course, it seems that “Aryans” originated somewhere in India- as opposed to some grand Teutonic fatherland. Race- it’s a “funny” thing…

  • Jose Frink

    All I know is nothing kills an ad like laughing, smiling generic young professionals.
    And you know about their young “professionalism” how exactly? Their occupations are signified how exactly?
    And don’t tell me something about espresso: in many part of the US, you can find espresso in small towns where I guarantee you that there are few white-collar jobs. Not saying the espresso in those places is any good, but as far as I can tell, espresso has quit being a class signifier.

  • Jerry Holtaway

    So, why not say European American? Because the person could be a European, but not American. Just like people can be African and not American. Anyway,as you say, it’s a “funny” thing to be sure…

  • Clem Guttata

    I agree thomas. I don’t think the ad works at all.
    I stared at it for quite a while reading “Family bonding without the family” before I saw the word “agreeing.”
    There’s something else weird going on with the photo–it looks poorly altered. The blonde’s left arm is too long and her left hand is a completely different shade than the rest of her body. This is a composite photo–the three may not have even been at the same photo shoot.
    In my opinion, someone tried a little too hard to build an ad around the idea “even hot chocolate” and undermined the products branding of “together is better.”

  • tinwoman

    The first ad featuring a mixed race couple which I saw was a few years ago in Germany…the white girlfriend is trying to get her black boyfriend’s attention as he watches a football game. I did not notice any overt racial context, as I do here…the jokes clearly about the different coffee choices.
    I still remember when you never, ever, showed mixed race couples on television. If there was one black guy on a school football team during a show about high school, he HAD to pair up with the one black cheerleader on the squad…..and there was always only one of each. No matter how irrelevant to the plot the single black cast member was, he or she always had a partner of the same race. Always.
    I thought this ad might have been about “blended families” i.e. the woman might be a stepmother…I don’t know why. I didn’t care for the ad that much, because it seemed to be saying, you can have family bonding without all that icky stuff like making the relationships actually work.

  • Terrapin

    The man is not wearing a wedding ring that I can see. And the woman’s hand is obscured.
    I do not know if that is relevant to the racial discussion but it might be relevant to the “Family without the Family…” discussion.

  • JEM

    Politics aside, there’s something very odd about the woman’s left forearm. It can’t possibly be that long.
    Strange photo, in many ways. Likely a composite. My guess is that when someone finds the original images, they’ll be mono-racial.

  • brkily

    My family is bi-racial, european-southern american-white and jamaican-black, so we are sensitized to notice advertising with anything like mixed families. This particular ad seems pretty awkward, that is probably to be expected in the beginning of breaking breaking these taboos. Recently my daughter noticed & remarked excitedly, seeing an ad on network (cable?) TV with a mixed couple–i don’t remember the sponsor. i am sure I have seen at least several within the last year. i think it is trending. (I live in the Los Angeles area.)

  • Firemouse

    At first glance I was reading the smaller person in the middle who has longish hair as an adult female the man and woman were tussling over. Thus a lesbian couple and the blonde woman’s brother-in-law?
    The “Family bonding without the family” bothered me a LOT.

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