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What a Cereal Box Can Teach Us All About Unconscious Bias

The increasing use of social media means that, more than ever, celebrities, politicians and corporations are under the spotlight from millions of observers with a potentially global platform. Some things that might have gone largely unnoticed even 10 or 15 years ago can now gain near-instant headlines. Such was the case with a recent Kellogg’s cereal box design that angered some customers.

The box displayed a number of anthropomorphic corn pops engaged in various activities in a mall. Writer Saladin Ahmed was quick to point out via Twitter, though, that the design contained only a single brown corn pop – a janitor operating a floor waxer. The image, said Ahmed, promoted racism.

An NBC News article by Kara Taylor quoted follow-up comments from Ahmed, who is a writer for Marvel Comics' "Black Bolt" series. Ahmed tweeted that that while his complaint might seem like a "tiny thing," it is an issue when "you see your kid staring at this over breakfast and realize millions of other kids are doing the same." Kellogg’s was quick to respond saying it would redesign the box.

This incident highlights a couple of interesting dynamics:

The first, as mentioned above, is the power of social media as a platform to bring attention to injustices, real and perceived, however unintentional they may be. Tools like Twitter, Facebook and others give voices to those who previously had no voices.

The second is a question of diversity and inclusion (D&I) at some companies and how D&I (or lack thereof) impacts business decisions. Without speculating about the D&I policies and practices at Kellogg, in general, or the diversity of the team that created this cereal box design, specifically, it’s worth wondering whether a racially diverse group would have created, or approved, such a design. If we give Kellogg the benefit of the doubt and assume there was no overt racism intended, would a person of color have caught the potentially inflammatory choice to have the only corn pop of color portrayed as a janitor before the boxes hit supermarket shelves?

This is the kind of unconscious bias that we write and speak about frequently. It’s a striking example of how our words and actions can be fueled by biases we don’t even realize we have. Social media has the power to bring those biases to light. We’re glad Ahmed raised this issue. We're glad Kellogg responded quickly and appropriately. We can all learn a lot from this situation.

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