Family Life

Advertising Our Diversity: What TV Commercials Say About Mixed Marriages in Canada

Aaron Nava
December 17, 2021
From its origins flogging patent medicines in the early 19th century, corporate advertising has never been just about the product. Rather, it is meant to promote a sense of awareness and desire. With this in mind, what should we make of the recent deluge of TV commercials that suggest Canada is populated almost entirely by mixed-race families? With the fantasyland of advertising as his starting point, Aaron Nava probes the state of intermarriage in Canada, looking closely at our statistical record, what it means on a personal level and what it holds for our country’s future.
Family Life

Advertising Our Diversity: What TV Commercials Say About Mixed Marriages in Canada

Aaron Nava
December 17, 2021
From its origins flogging patent medicines in the early 19th century, corporate advertising has never been just about the product. Rather, it is meant to promote a sense of awareness and desire. With this in mind, what should we make of the recent deluge of TV commercials that suggest Canada is populated almost entirely by mixed-race families? With the fantasyland of advertising as his starting point, Aaron Nava probes the state of intermarriage in Canada, looking closely at our statistical record, what it means on a personal level and what it holds for our country’s future.
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How diverse is Canada? If you watch hockey on TV or perhaps took in the recent Grey Cup, you already know the answer. The same goes for fans of dramas, game shows, news or anything else that might expose a viewer to the advertising campaigns of major corporations. Canada is really, really diverse. How do we know this? Because so many of the couples depicted in TV commercials are in mixed-race relationships.

Anyone requiring internet or phone service will have seen repeated examples of this phenomenon. One prominent Bell ad promises “Instant smiles with gran technology” as a white dad and his adorable little moppet chat online with the child’s black grandmother. Another has a black husband and white wife obsessing over the various shows they watch with their mixed-race family, as a couple and separately. A current Shaw ad features a panicked white dad being instructed in the mysteries of video streaming by his take-charge Asian wife.

Can’t be missed: The couples populating Canadian TV commercials have lately become unmistakably, perhaps dogmatically, interracial. (Clockwise from top left: Recent ads for Hyundai, RBC, Shaw and Questrade.)

The evidence is by no means limited to internet service providers. An ubiquitous TV ad for discount broker Questrade plays up Millennial fears of the inflationary housing boom with a mixed-race couple shocked to find out their friends just bought a house. Similar couples covering all manner of visible minorities feature prominently in ads for banks and credit unions, car manufacturers, snack foods, airlines and hotel chains, pizza outlets, gaming platforms and provincial lottery authorities, to mention just a few. Sometimes you have to look carefully to spot the interracial couple, as with an ad for stationary bike company Peloton. Other times, the effort is so ham-handed – like Peoples Jewellers’ current ad campaign that shoehorns in every possible combination of adult coupling – that you can’t possibly miss it.

Whatever the racial combination or degree of subtlety, there’s no escaping the observation that the families populating the fantasyland of TV commercials have become explicitly, perhaps dogmatically, multiracial. When an advertising campaign requires a fictional family to do the pitching, one imagines someone in the client meeting inevitably asking, “Great idea, but how can we make the family even more diverse?” It has almost reached the point where any ad displaying a homogeneous family seems hopelessly out-of-date.

“They’re selling soap, man. No joke”: At the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots this past summer, U.S. President Joe Biden referred to the frequency of mixed-race couples in TV commercials as evidence of growing racial tolerance. (Source: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The same trend has been noted in the United States, and even U.S. President Joe Biden has weighed in. During remarks commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots, Biden said, in his characteristically abstruse way, “I challenge you – find today, when you turn on the stations – sit on one station for two hours. And I don’t know how many commercials you’ll see – eight to five – two to three out of five have mixed-race couples in them. That’s not by accident. They’re selling soap, man. No joke.” Whatever you might think about his politics (or grammar), Biden clearly knows what’s up with TV commercials.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 2013 Cheerios released an ad in the U.S. showing a little girl who, upon finding out the iconic breakfast cereal is supposedly good for your heart, dumped a box on her dad while he napped on the couch. Cuteness aside, the fact dad was black and the mom white prompted a deluge of complaints when General Mills posted the video to YouTube. The ad was subsequently pulled from circulation due to the outcry. These days, rather than running from the issue of intermarriage, prominent corporations are eagerly seeking to be directly associated with it.

But what do we really know about mixed-race marriages outside the advertising world? And amid incessant claims of rising systemic racism and hate across North America, what does the phenomenon tell us about life in Canada in 2021?

Mixed-Marriage Breakdown

University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has written extensively about social attitudes towards race and mixed marriages. “Most social scientists maintain that there is probably no better index of racial and cultural integration than inter-marriage,” he once observed. This seems intuitively, as well as academically, true. On a personal level, a decision to spend the rest of your life with someone from outside your own race or culture surely reflects an absence of any deep-seated contempt for other races and a personal commitment to love and tolerance.

At the societal level, the routine and uncontroversial presence of mixed marriages signals the erosion of rigid social stratification and separation and, in some cases, the elimination of laws forbidding such unions. While Canada has never had such laws, legal prohibition of so-called “miscegenation” in the U.S. wasn’t declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until 1967 in the famous Loving v. Virginia case. Canadians still have much to brag about when it comes to mixed marriages.

Earlier this year the Vanier Institute of the Family, an Ottawa-based think-tank, released a close look at the current diversity of relationships in Canada. “There are homogamous unions, in which each partner is from the same racial group,” explains Margo Hilbrecht, the institute’s interim program director, in an interview. “And then there are heterogamous marriages – that’s when you have a white person and a visible minority, or you have two different visible minorities that intermarry.”

According to Statistics Canada’s most recent data from the 2016 long-form census, heterogamous unions (comprising both marriage and common-law arrangements) constitute 7.3 percent of all such relationships in Canada. This is up substantially from the previous census in 2011, when it stood at 4.6 percent. In 2006, the proportion was only 3.6 percent. In 1991, the first year such data was collected, it was a mere 2.6 percent.

A doubling in 20 years: Margo Hilbrecht, interim program director of the Vanier Institute of the Family, notes heterogamous relationships constitute 7.3 percent of all conjugal unions in Canada, up from 3.6 percent two decades ago. (Source of table: Metrics to Meaning: Capturing the Diversity of Couples in Canada by Kathya Aathavan, Vanier Institute of the Family, June 2021)

While 7.3 percent may appear to be a small percentage of all unions – particularly given the overwhelming presence of mixed-race couples in TV-land – its share has risen by nearly 60 percent in only five years, an unquestionably impressive growth rate. “Couples in Canada have become increasingly diverse,” the Vanier Institute report notes. “This diversity is complex and dynamic, and reflects the larger diversity of Canadian society.”

But even the doubling of racially mixed couples likely undercounts the actual number of relationships that breach cultural, racial or religious barriers in Canada. As the report notes, the clumsy way in which Statscan collects its data means “diversity of unions is underestimated when visible minority status alone is used to measure it.” A union in which both partners are classified as “white” might not be in a heterogamous relationship by Statscan standards, but it seems possible that a Scottish-Greek couple could experience just as many cultural obstacles as a Ukrainian-Filipino one. So perhaps even the definition of diversity needs to be more diverse.  

As for the demographics of mixed marriages, over three-quarters of Canadian couples comprised of a white and a visible minority partner live in one of Canada’s major metropolitan areas. A large majority also have post-secondary education. And within mixed marriages, Hilbrecht points out, there is considerable diversity of habit. Japanese, Latin American and black individuals are much more likely to enter into an interracial union. Groups least likely to marry outside their racial identity include Chinese and South Asians.

The International Comparison

A puzzling mashup of definitions complicate comparing the trend in Canada with other countries. Brazil is widely accepted to be the world leader in mixed marriages, with an estimated 33 percent of all unions crossing racial boundaries. Throughout Europe, mixed marriages are estimated at 8 percent, with considerable variation among countries. France and Ireland are both above 11 percent, while Finland is at 3.6 percent. But the European Union’s definition of a mixed marriage is simply that the couple have different citizenships – a measure that ignores the important racial or cultural differences that make racially-diverse marriages such a compelling social indicator. While our Scottish-Greek couple mentioned above may face significant challenges, there are likely few such barriers involved in a Swedish-Norwegian match.

Love, American-style: According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, a remarkable 17 percent of all new marriages in the U.S. involve a multiracial couple.

In the U.S., a Pew Research Center survey puts the overall share of mixed-race couples at 10 percent of existing marriages – and a remarkable 17 percent among current newlyweds. While both figures are substantially higher than Canada’s 7.3 percent, the Pew data only includes legal marriages. In contrast, Canada’s mixed-union figures encompass a much larger pool that includes common-law relationships as well as marriages. As a result, the U.S. 10 percent rate is not directly comparable to Canadian statistics. Especially so given the fact cohabitation is now more common in the U.S. than marriage, and marriage is increasingly becoming the domain of families in middle and upper-income ranges.

What are the “mixing propensities”? Research by sociologists Richard Alba of City University of New York (left) and Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto (right) suggests second-generation mixed-marriage rates may be substantially higher in Canada than in the U.S.

More detailed research into mixed marriages in the U.S. and Canada was published this year in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies by sociologists Richard Alba of City University of New York and Jeffrey Reitz of the University of Toronto’s Munk School. The pair point to marriage rates among second-generation migrants as a more significant measure of “mixing propensities,” since they have been born and raised in the new country. In the U.S., Alba and Reitz put the second-generation mixed-marriage rate (that is, the offspring of immigrants marrying a white American) at 25-45 percent across most racial groupings. In Canada, this figure is in the 50-75 percent range, although the authors admit the data for Canada includes marriages in which the partners are from different visible minority immigrant groups.

When it comes to attitudes towards mixed marriages, however, Canada has long been the North American leader in advanced tolerance. In 2007 a poll pegged the overall Canadian approval rate for interracial marriages at 92 percent. In the U.S. that year, the comparable figure was 77 percent. Support among Americans was a mere 4 percent in 1958, when Gallup first asked the question, and it took until the mid-1990s to even reach a bare majority. This year Gallup reported that 94 percent of Americans are supportive of mixed marriages.

This process of acceptance follows Canada’s increasingly multicultural makeup and world-leading sense of open-mindedness. (Canada is currently ranked number two among countries for racial equity, according to US News and World Report.) As Bibby and co-authors Joel Thiessen and Monetta Bailey wrote in their 2019 book The Millennial Mosaic: How Pluralism and Choice are Shaping Canadian Youth and the Future of Canada, “Canadians tend to increase their acceptance and practice of interracial unions as Canada becomes more multiracial.” Polling data assembled for the book showed remarkably high support across nearly all generations.

As the accompanying table shows, the approval rate among Millennials (those born after 1986) for all possible interracial marriage combinations exceeds 96 percent. Gen Xers (born 1966 to 1985) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1965) also display acceptance rates above 92 percent. Even among pre-Boomers, approval rates are mostly in the 80s or 90s. Despite ongoing noisy complaints that Canada is a hotbed of racism and prejudice, when it comes to choosing a life mate, Canadians of all ages deliver a full-throated endorsement of colour-blind love.

A foundational fact: The Métis experience in western Canada is evidence of the high degree of tolerance shown for mixed marriages throughout Canadian history. (Source: University of Saskatchewan Archives, 1883-1916)

The Vanier Institute’s Hilbrecht notes that this broad-based support for intermarriage might well be considered a foundational Canadian fact. As evidence she cites the Métis, a group born of the union of white fur traders and native women. “Those marriages were encouraged by the Indigenous people because the fur traders became part of their kin network, which supported an economic relationship,” she says. “The Indigenous women acted as interpreters and supported their husbands by sharing their knowledge of the land. There was a reciprocal economic benefit for the larger community.” As well as sexual attraction and love, of course.

Fifty Years of Experience

Norio and Fran Ota have spent the last half-century observing changing attitudes towards mixed marriages. Norio, a Japanese man, and Fran, a white woman, were married in April 1971 in Japan, after meeting at a language school where Norio was teaching Japanese to Western missionaries. For Norio, a mixed-race marriage was the means of escaping a claustrophobic culture. “I wanted to get out of Japan because the whole society was really suffocating,” he says in an interview together with his wife. “If I had stayed in Japan for the rest of my life, I would’ve ended up being one of those washed-out Japanese salarymen, and I didn’t want to be like that.”

But addressing such desires meant facing plenty of embedded prejudices. “I went out with a Hong Kong Chinese girlfriend for a long time,” Norio recalls. “But that fell apart because her father told her that if she ever married that ‘Japanese boy,’ he would disown her.” After his relationship with former student Fran blossomed, a similar issue arose. “We started going out, and I proposed. But we had a problem with my mother, because it was a major shock to her,” he continues. “She never expected that I would marry a white person.” Norio notes his marriage to Fran was exceedingly rare at the time, especially since it involved a Japanese man and a white woman; in the postwar era, the few interracial couples in Japan typically involved Japanese women and white men.

Five decades spent watching things get better: Since their wedding in Japan in 1971, Norio Ota and his wife Fran have seen public attitudes towards mixed marriages improve substantially in both Japan and North America.

Today, Norio is a professor of the Japanese language at Toronto’s York University, where he ran an award-winning Japanese language program; last month he was awarded the prestigious Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold and Silver Rays by the Japanese government for his life’s work. Fran has been a United Church minister for 25 years. Together they have built up considerable insight into evolving social attitudes towards mixed marriages in Japan and North America. Beyond their initial difficulties in Japan, both say they faced their share of odd looks and uncomfortable situations in Canada and the U.S. as well. But the couple tend to downplay these problems of the past in order to focus more on the improvements over time. “I don’t call these incidents ‘discriminatory incidents’ because I do not want to relate everything to discrimination,” Norio says. “Yes, discrimination exists. But in a multiracial, multicultural society, especially in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, there’s now so many interracial marriages. People are used to seeing or dealing with these couples.”

Asked how they perceive the current deluge of mixed-marriage ads, Norio says he appreciates the sentiment. “At least they are trying to be multiracial,” he says. “But many ads make me feel like saying, ‘Don’t overdo it’.” Fran has a more mixed view, calling them something of a “performative fantasy,” if more so in the U.S. than Canada. And yet it is a fantasy that, at least partly, reflects the real world. “In my practice as an ordained minister, the number of interracial marriages that I have done has gone up over the 25 years,” says Fran. “I have done a lot of white Canadian male to Asian woman weddings. And even in rural areas, families seem completely open to that. It is just a natural change in the way the world is moving.”

The “Backlash”

While things are clearly getting better in both Canada and the U.S., some observers seem unprepared to give up a belief in pervasive racism. To these eternal grievers, nothing can ever improve. Writing in The Walrus last year, Charmaine Nelson, an art historian at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and director of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery, claimed that even the doubling of the percentage of interracial marriages in Canada is meaningless given this country’s allegedly dark history of slavery. “For a country that claims to celebrate its racial diversity and inclusiveness, living together in a multicultural society seems not to have resulted in the deepest levels of profound social connection signalled by intimate unions,” she wrote. As for all that evidence from TV ads, she eagerly references the 2013 Cheerios controversy, but makes no mention of the vast changes over the past eight years. It seems some folks only like bad news.  

Some folks may never be happy: Despite overwhelming evidence regarding the growth in, and acceptance of, interracial marriages in North America, critics such as Charmaine Nelson, an art historian at Halifax’s NSCAD University (left), and Jason Johnson, a professor of journalism and politics at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland (right), appear perpetually unsatisfied.

Similarly in the U.S., Jason Johnson, a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, issued an angry rebuttal to Biden’s observations cited earlier. “I could see nothing but straight, queer and trans Black love in commercials for the next 30 years and that wouldn’t be enough,” he wrote in the online magazine The Grio. Claiming to have tracked the issue carefully, Johnson asserts that 70 percent of such couples entail black women and white men. (He clearly hasn’t watched many recent Canadian ads.) What Johnson concludes from this is that, “Woke white America wants to believe it can [copulate] it’s (sic) way out of racism, as long as the penis is white.” Like Nelson, it seems Johnson will never be convinced his country is not irredeemably racist.  

There is also considerable angst within smaller religious populations that intermarriage threatens to erode their carefully protected identity. The Jewish diaspora, for example, watches intermarriage statistics closely and frequently comments with alarm when these rates rise. This is perhaps less because of intermarriage per se and more because a Jewish partner frequently abandons their religious practises and/or does not pass them on to any children the couple might have.

In that vein, an academic paper published last year in Canadian Jewish Studies observes that, “The rising rate of intermarriage can be significantly mitigated if the Jewish community finds the means to increase the proportion of children who undergo intensive Jewish secondary socialization and the proportion of immigrants in the Jewish community.” The paper suggests subsidies for private Jewish school tuition as a way to lower the intermarriage rate among younger Jews.

A source of angst: For some minority groups, in particular Jewish Canadians, intermarriage is often considered a threat to the preservation of their religion and culture. (Source: Shutterstock)

As the child of a Jewish father and an Irish-Catholic mother myself, I’m personally glad my parents were able to find an open-minded Rabbi in Montreal willing to marry them all those years ago. While the fact I didn’t grow up to be a particularly devout Jew suggests the diaspora arguments are legitimate, I like to think I have been able to learn from both my parents, and develop a broader understanding of a world that includes both their cultures. Besides, I’d find it hard to argue that my own creation should ever be considered a negative outcome. Whatever the impact it may have on specific groups’ identities, we should not lose sight of the overall benefits intermarriage delivers.

The research of Alba and Reitz mentioned above suggests that the biggest societal gain from mixed marriages lies in the evolving attitudes of their offspring. The growth rate of mixed-race children matches that for mixed-race marriages; in 2001, 8 percent of Canadian newborns had parents from different ethno-racial groups. By 2016, this had nearly doubled to 15 percent. The sociologists point out that these multi-racial young Canadians occupy an “in-between status” straddling majority and minority identities. Yet these in-betweeners are far more likely to adopt mainstream values and report feeling “comfortable” with Canada, than are children of a single minority group. They also report less discrimination. In other words, intermarriage works to create a stronger overall sense of Canadian identity by accelerating the integration of immigrant populations.

Reality vs. Television

The “In-betweeners”: The work of Alba and Reitz suggests that children born into mixed-race families tend to identify more strongly with mainstream values and report less discrimination, thus accelerating the integration of immigrant families into Canadian society. (Source: Shutterstock)

Does the real Canada look like what we see portrayed in TV commercials? Of course not. The version of our country delivered during hockey game ad breaks is mostly aspirational and motivated by contemporary corporate desires to be seen to be doing good in the most obvious ways. (And perhaps to earn them refuge from the woke mob.) Nonetheless, the ads do contain an essential truth about our country. Canada is a remarkably tolerant and accepting society. We are diverse in both our population and our intimate relationships. And getting more so every year.

The rapid growth in mixed-race unions in Canada – doubling over the past two decades – demonstrates this. As does the phenomenally high rate of public acceptance across all age groups. The fact 94 percent of Canadians approve of marriages between black and white people should be evidence enough that Canada is not a country riven by racism or prejudice. Rather, Canada is a good news story that keeps getting better. And the ads we see on TV are a reflection of that. We now take you back to your regularly scheduled programming…

Aaron Nava is a freelance writer and social media manager based in Ottawa, Ontario.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.


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