Earlier this week, Caitlyn Jenner broke barriers as well as records when she became the first person to ever reach 1 million Twitter followers in just over four hours, breaking President Obama’s record of five hours. However, as welcoming as most were, General Mills had a strange, perhaps even standoffish response.
The former Olympian and Keeping Up with the Kardashians star previously known as Bruce Jenner finally revealed her post-transition self with a Vanity Fair cover asking the world to “Call Her Caitlyn.” According to social media analytics tool Talkwalker, #CallMeCaitlyn had over 300,000 mentions in its first 24 hours since the Vanity Fair cover dropped.
Oddly enough though, General Mills, which has featured Jenner on three different Wheaties boxes since her 1976 Olympic Gold victory, refused to acknowledge the transition, telling TMZ, “”Bruce Jenner continues to be a respected member of Team Wheaties.” When the reporter asked for clarification in light of Jenner’s transition, the brand became cagey, replying “We stand by our statement.”
With Twitter followers of @Caitlyn_Jenner reaching 2.3 since Monday and everyone from the fashion world to human rights organizations praising Jenner’s courage, General Mills’ odd refusal to call her by her name comes off a little bit tone deaf.
“General Mills had a long history with Bruce Jenner,” says Jasmine Sandler, chief executive (CEO) and founder of Agent-cy Online Marketing, an online branding agency. “And Caitlyn Jenner continues to be an iconic personal brand standing for health, fitness and American pride. I think that continuing to support Caitlyn in her new identity makes sense.”
But while many hope to see Caitlyn Jenner on a Wheaties Box, public opinion remains split on transgender rights. Politician Mike Huckabee recently claimed that there was something “inherently wrong” with recognizing transgender individuals as such. And many on Twitter agree, so it could be smart for General Mills to shy away from controversy, says Shawn Prez, CEO of marketing company Power Moves.
“General Mills has no obligation to Caitlyn because Bruce was featured on a Wheaties box. They have no obligation to stand behind or condemn Caitlyn,” Prez says. “I think from their end they are waiting to see if there is any blowback. It’s the safe play, it’s strategic, and they may decide to leave it alone altogether.”
However, the Caitlyn Jenner response isn’t the only time this week that General Mills has been in hot water for not following through. Last week, Twitter was full of praise for the fact that General Mills had pulled sponsorship of TLC’s Nineteen Kids and Counting after star Josh Duggar admitted to molesting some of his sisters. This week, a General Mills rep confirmed to Variety that while the brand had pulled funding for the show, it had not pulled funding from the network, despite speculation that TLC knew about the sexual assaults and the fact that the network refuses to cancel the show.
General Mills’ failures to stand behind Caitlyn Jenner or live up to followers’ expectations of the brand’s public stance against the Duggars lead to an interesting question: Does a brand’s responsiblity begin and end with public perception?
For Prez, General Mills has done enough with regards to the TLC molestation scandal. “At the end of the day, the Duggar scandal is criminal and General Mills has every right to pull advertising from that particular show. [But it’s] great of them to leave that ad spend with TLC,” Prez says.
He also believes that there’s a middle ground for the Caitlyn Jenner situation as well in the form of a social media post that doesn’t focus too much on Jenner’s transition. “[The solution] could be as simple as a social media post,” Prez says. “It doesn’t need to reuse Jenner’s new image. The president of our nation has posted a tweet acknowledging support of Jenner. It could be as simple as that.”
And while there seems to be relatively little outcry from the media about TLC, the jury is still out on whether or not public opinion will push General Mills to publicly stand by its former spokesperson.
“I have a feeling that General Mills will clarify their statement at some point because they will be forced to do so,” says Sandler. “In a world of social media first, general media second, a large brand must protect its online reputation. General Mills is a large company and more than likely has media crisis management rules and guidelines that have been set up a long time ago.”
Update: General Mills has told several media outlets that “Bruce Jenner has been a respected member of Team Wheaties, and Caitlyn Jenner will continue to be.” However, the brand has yet to address Caitlyn Jenner on social media.