Quotas on the menu at General Mills

The Star Tribune recently reported on Golden Valley-based General Mills’ plans to pressure the food giant’s advertising agencies to adhere to strict racial and gender staffing quotas or forget about landing the account.

From now on Madison Avenue will have to hire fewer Mad Men and at least 50 percent women and 20 percent people of color in order to get a slice of the Fortune 500 company’s $700 million annual marketing budget.Wheaties

The announcement seemed to be viewed as a great step forward by some, even as the Wheaties’ cereal producer “forecast weak sales growth for the first quarter” of next year.

The company’s diversity benchmark “automatically eliminates a number of agencies from even having the opportunity to compete for the General Mills account, which I think will encourage some agencies to increase their efforts to be more inclusive,” Constance Cannon Frazier, chief operating officer for the American Advertising Federation, said in an e-mail.

But American Experiment’s Mitch Pearlstein points out the flip side in this op-ed, including General Mills failure to apply the racial/gender mandate to its own Board of Directors.

In making the announcement, General Mills’ marketing director said: “We are very excited about that. If you are going to put the people you serve first, the most important thing is to live up to it and make it a key criteria (sic).” She added that the requirement “feels like a first” in the country.

Yes, it does.

Let it be known that I like my Wheaties as much as anyone, also my Yoplait, especially its new Grecian formula. But in coming up with its new ad agency policy, I wonder if General Mills gave sufficient thought to possible unintended consequences. Like …

According to the company’s website, General Mills’ “leadership” is composed of 19 men and eight women, with three of the men and two of the women racial minorities, or so it would appear.

If you find the term “so it would appear” in this context awkward and perhaps offensive, so do I. But so be it with human bean counting.

Question: What if the federal government — say, the Army or the Navy — demanded that senior leadership at General Mills, as well as at Kellogg’s and Post, be at least 50 percent women? This, or their pitches to sell boatloads of Cheerios, Rice Krispies and Honey Bunches of Oats would be thrown overboard? Same thing if their senior minority executives didn’t constitute 20 percent?

Given that there is a total of 27 men and women in official General Mills leadership, would the company be obliged to subtract six men while adding six women so its new lineup would have 13 men and 14 women? Would this remake General Mills as newly kosher in the eyes of the Pentagon? As for minority executives, only one would need to be added — so long as he or she was a she. Otherwise, everything would be out of whack again.

If General Mills couldn’t make all of this work according to federal guidelines, would bureaucrats give the company a pass as long as CEO Ken Powell, a very good man, were eventually succeeded by Betty Crocker herself? Just wondering again. And would ad agencies that got eliminated even before their proposals got to first base have the right to describe the whole exercise as a “crock”?

What would happen at an ad agency that actually won a contract with General Mills, but at which several women in the creative department, entirely of their own accord, left to take jobs at other agencies for more money, more prestige or whatever? Or if they decided to spend more time home with young children?

Where would that leave management if their departure resulted in women dropping below the 50 percent quota and (here’s the rub) most or all of the best candidates for the openings were white men? Would the ad agency have to petition General Mills for a waiver? Might the agency automatically lose out on having its contract renewed? Or would the agency be obliged to hire against its best economic interests? Just asking.

For all who think there’s a fundamental ugliness in talking about gender, race and ethnicity like this, I wholly agree. But ugliness and worse are frequent when institutions issue severe gender-based, race-based and ethnicity-based dictates.

I recognize that a major impetus for what General Mills has done has been recent discussion in the advertising world about how too few women lead creative teams in the industry, as opposed to marketing and other departments. One report has the proportion at 11.5 percent. Yes, that’s awfully low and warrants fixing, albeit not by trampling.

I also recognize that ads of various kinds are arenas in which hiring models and actors based on gender, race and ethnicity is acceptable. It’s unreasonable, for example, to expect McDonald’s or Burger King to sell more Big Macs and Whoppers in mostly minority neighborhoods, in finely targeted commercials, by having mainly white actors chow down. And it is true that private companies are not restricted in the same way public enterprises are when it comes to taking gender, race, ethnicity and similar matters into account.

But notwithstanding that legality, and scattered satire aside, the fact remains that quotas — and that’s exactly what General Mills is requiring — are inherently distasteful.

It’s an aftertaste that one of the world’s iconic food companies might want to avoid.